Mary Lee is blowing Chris Fischer’s mind. The 3,500-pound great white shark isn’t doing what he thought. After tagging the giant fish and tracking her up and down the eastern U.S. coast, the shark wrangler is amazed at this shark’s movement. But before anyone could watch Mary Lee’s surprising swimming pattern scientists had to work with fishermen to hook her.
Once lured to the boat, a submerged lift cradles her as it rises onto the boat’s deck. The team, which is like a NASCAR pit crew, races into action. One person puts a dark cloth over her eyes to keep her calm. Another draws a blood sample. Someone else brushes her teeth to collect bacteria and parasite samples. And a key team member attaches a GPS unit to her dorsal fin so the world can follow her journey.
Fischer says, “These guys are laying their body parts on the line for the future of the ocean. They are fishing for the future.”
And for science. We know very little about shark behavior, largely because great whites are so large and hard to catch. It is very difficult for marine biologists to catch and tag a shark and let it go while it’s still alive.
Fisher says, “There’s no better feeling than when you see a fish like Mary Lee swim away strong and you know that you have just exploded the body of knowledge forward and are going to dramatically enhance our capacity to make sure that the North Atlantic has a robust future.”
Ocearch is the non-profit organization that tags and tracks sharks trying to better understand shark behavior in their natural habitat, their life history and migration patterns. Its unique Shark Tracker allows scientists and citizens alike to follow tagged sharks online.Mary Lee is swimming in the waters where Jaws first struck terror in the hearts of movie fans and where sharks got their bad rap. Certainly great white sharks are apex predators and occasionally they take a chunk out of a surfer. But they are no more dangerous (and a lot more misunderstood) than wild animals in the jungle.
Through programs like Ocearch scientists can take their own shark knowledge and apply it to tagged sharks. Currently, there are 45 scientists whose work is being supported by the Ocearch team.
Armed with the latest technology these scientists are trying to uncover the secret lives of sharks. And Mary Lee is helping to lead the way. Fischer says, “These sharks are a 400-million-year-old secret. We don’t know where they are breeding, feeding or giving birth.”
After tagging her near Cape Cod in September, Mary Lee headed south and was swimming around North Carolina. A few weeks ago she made a sudden and unexpected beeline back to cold New England waters. Fischer and others thought she would hang way offshore from northern Florida where big schools of fish gather and where Northern Right whales birth their young.
Mary Lee joins Genie — a 14-foot 2,200-pound great white shark — as the only two great white sharks tagged in north Atlantic waters. Genie was tagged on September 13, 2012 and Mary Lee followed quickly on September 17. Since then both fish have been swimming freely and thousands of people have been tracking their every move online.
Expedition leader Fischer named the fish after his mother. He says, “My parents have done so much. I was waiting and waiting for a special shark to name after her and this is truly the most historic and legendary fish I have ever been a part of and it set the tone for Cape Cod.”
Nick Whitney agrees. With Mary Lee the science team effectively doubled the data they can collect on mating and breeding habits. Both Genie and Mary Lee are mature female sharks. That excites Whitney, a shark biologist from the Mote Marine Laboratory in Sarasota, Florida.
He says, “When you have two adult females, anything similar can tell us that we could possibly have a pattern. If you have just one, you can’t tell if it’s just abnormal behavior because you have nothing to compare it to.”
And first on the agenda for weird behavior is Mary Lee’s sudden winter vacation to Cape Cod.
Since 2007, Chris Fischer has led 14 expeditions and covered over 250,000 nautical miles to advance science and unlock the many mysteries surrounding the life history of White Sharks and other giants of the ocean. As the founder of Ocearch and a member of the National Geographic Explorer’s Club, Fischer works with over 50 scientists from over 20 international organizations.
He sees shark research as a huge opportunity for scientists to work with the public.
Perhaps school projects and other citizen science research will emerge from the unusual migratory pattern Mary Lee seems is swimming.
Even as a new great white shark pushes Jaws into the annals of movie history and captures the attention of an interested public, Fischer sees the practicality of having scientists work with the public. “You need scientists and fishermen to come together. You can’t expect a scientist and an intern to pull that off by themselves.”