Land & Conservation

A Great White in the Lowcountry

“These are 400-million-year-old secrets that schoolchildren are solving alongside PhDs.”

If you haven’t heard, a great white shark with a Southern belle’s name—Mary Lee—has been cruising our Southern waters this fall. Mary Lee passed Charleston Harbor on her way south in early November, stirring up headlines, then turned near Jacksonville and swam back to the Lowcountry for Thanksgiving. Some experts speculate that she is feasting on fish migrating out to sea from our coastal inlets.

At 16 feet and 3,456 pounds, Mary Lee is hard to miss up close, but she and other great white sharks may have been swimming these waters for centuries—millions of years, actually—without our knowledge. We’re learning about them now thanks to the work of OCEARCH, a non-profit that is tagging and monitoring sharks to study their two-year migration loops.

The project is about more than knowledge for the sake of knowledge. Shark populations are declining all over the world, in many cases due to the lucrative shark-fin trade, and OCEARCH hopes that their research will identify the sites where great whites breed and birth so that they can be protected.

Expedition leader Chris Fischer and his team caught and tagged Mary Lee near Cape Cod in mid-September. Fischer named the massive shark after his mother (whom, he reports, is “giddy” about the honor). After Mary Lee—the shark—was released, she promptly set a course south, swinging out past Washington, D.C. before moving inland. Shark enthusiasts and other curious civilians have followed her day-to-day progress with a tracker on the OCEARCH website.

Mike Estabrook/OCEARCH

Caroline Nurse/OCEARCH

“What is she doing right now? Where is she going? Nobody knows.” says Fischer “We’re all working on this together.” This is the state of exploration in 2012, he says—great scientists teaming with great fishermen to “explode” our body of knowledge about great white sharks while the whole world watches online. “These are 400-million-year-old secrets that schoolchildren are solving alongside PhDs.”

Should those schoolchildren—and the rest of us—be worried that a great white shark is swimming so close to home? Not really, Fischer says. “These sharks have always been here,” he says. “This is just the first time in history we know it.”