CHARLESTON, S.C. — It seems Mary Lee’s winter vacation in the sunny South is over.
The 3,500-pound great white shark headed north after spending weeks off the Southeast coast. Mary Lee, one of only two great whites ever tagged in the North Atlantic, got as far south as Jacksonville Beach, Fla., several weeks ago. But in recent days, she’s made a bee line north.
On Thursday, she was off Long Island, N.Y. Researchers can’t really say they are surprised because the habits of the great white are such a mystery.
“Lo and behold, Mary Lee goes down there for a little while and then bugs out and now she’s off Long Island and we realize we don’t know anything,” said Chris Fischer, the founder of OCEARCH, a nonprofit dedicated to studying great whites and other large marine species.
Fischer’s group has tagged dozens of great whites off South Africa and in the Pacific. He led the September expedition to tag Mary Lee off Cape Cod, and named the shark after his mother. The group also tagged a second great white, Genie.
“I felt like at the moment, Mary Lee was the most legendary fish caught in history,” he said. “We were at the home of ‘Jaws,’ we were capturing a great white to save it and solve the puzzle of the great white.”
“Jaws,” the 1975 blockbuster movie directed by Steven Spielberg, was a fictitious tale of a great white causing havoc at a small New England island community.
Capturing a great white weighing upward of 2 tons is no easy feat. The expedition used its 126-foot research vessel, designed with a special lift that can bring up 55,000 pounds.
“We bait the shark and once we are pulling on the shark we walk it back to the ship and over the lift. The lift then pulls it out of the water,” Fischer said. While on the boat, a device that relays the shark’s position to a satellite is attached to its dorsal fin.
As many as 100,000 people a day are monitoring the position on OCEARCH’s website. Traffic got so heavy this winter the organization had to upgrade its servers, Fischer said.
“This is modern day exploration. I wanted the public to be able to see a part of that,” he said.
The other great white, Genie, also headed south for the winter. But because she doesn’t surface as much, her travels have been harder to track. Genie’s last position was recorded Jan. 19 off the South Carolina-Georgia border.
Fischer said it’s important to learn more about sharks, which are at the top of the food chain in the ocean but threatened by man. He said 73 million sharks a year are killed just for their fins to make shark fin soup.
In recent years, he added, people have become fascinated by sharks, which will help efforts to understand and protect them.
“It used to be when people were talking about great white sharks you could hear in the background the theme music to ‘Jaws’ and fear,” he said. “Now the conversation is of curiosity. What is Mary Lee doing today? Everyone is involved and the tone of the conversation has changed, which I think is important for the future of sharks.”