My first job was working the stern of a thirty-foot charter fishing boat as a first mate. I spent the summers of my late teens waking at 5:15 a.m. I’d drive to the dock, start thawing baits, and wait to greet the folks who had chartered the vessel for a day of deep-sea fishing. As a kid who loved the water, I could barely believe I was getting paid to spend my days on the ocean.
I can still vividly recall the first time I saw a shark large enough to make my spine tingle. Forty-five miles off the Savannah coast, one of our clients was reeling in an amberjack when a tiger shark pushing fourteen feet and thicker than an oil drum rose from the depths looking for an easy meal. “A shark! A shark!” yelled the fisherman. “Let’s catch him.”
“No,” the captain replied. “Let’s not.” Taking a cue from my boss, I gaffed the amberjack before the shark decided to take a bite, and the big tiger slowly sank from our sight with some very casual flicks of its tail. But for the rest of the day, the shark was all the party could talk about.
These days there are more people than ever talking about sharks thanks to Chris Fischer and his team from Ocearch, who anchored their research vessel off the coasts of South Carolina and Georgia this past winter. Fischer, who hails from Kentucky, is on a mission to unlock a mystery—the life cycle of the ocean’s apex predator, the great white.
Fischer and crew aim to tag at least fifty great white sharks with satellite transmitters to ultimately reveal their breeding and birthing grounds, which they hope will help to ensure the protection of those areas. On the recent expedition, the group tagged two great whites (Savannah, an eight-foot, 460-pound female, and Hilton, a twelve-foot, 1,326-pound male), bringing the total so far to twenty-two. “In five years I think we’ll have this puzzle solved,” Fischer says. “And I suspect we’ll be spending more time in the Lowcountry to do it.” Before Ocearch, nobody knew for certain that great white sharks regularly overwintered in the coastal Southeast. But there’s no reason for alarm. They’re not here for us, Fischer says, and they’ve probably been doing this for millions of years. If his research pans out, they’ll hopefully be doing it for millions more.