Here Comes the Shark! Hey Hamptons, Run!

We all recall that memorable scene in Jaws where the great white is tagged with a yellow barrel so that its movements could be tracked and it could not dive too far below the surface. The shark, however, is so strong that it pulls the barrel into the depths of the ocean, out of sight. The scene is a chilling one, making all of us realize in one instant the sheer power that a great white shark can possess. That and the fact that, despite our greatest efforts, these fearsome creatures could be lurking in our waters utterly unbeknownst to us.

Out here in the Hamptons, great white sharks are completely out of sight and, even with Jaws seared into our collective subconscious, mostly out of mind, normally so far offshore that they present no immediate danger to humans. We tell ourselves we have nothing to worry about. They won’t come and bother us.

So wouldn’t you know it, a friendly great white shark visited us late last month, swimming by the Hamptons less than 20 miles off our south shore. But she’s no stranger. Some people even knew she was coming. Her name is Mary Lee, and she is being tracked by OCEARCH, a nonprofit research group that studies the biology and health of sharks, along with conducting research on shark life history and migration. That includes migration here.

On September 17, 2012 OCEARCH tagged Mary Lee off of the shores of Cape Cod. They did this by tranquilizing the shark and inserting a GPS device on her dorsal fin that displays the shark’s location on Google Maps every time that fin breaches the water’s surface. OCEARCH calls the device its “Global Shark Tracker,” and it has 35 of them out there in the water right now.

In order to apply the device, the OCEARCH team uses a converted crabbing vessel and chum to lure great whites near their boat. When a shark appears, they capture it (alive, of course) and place it in a large cradle on the side of the boat, then bring it aboard and install the GPS device. Once the shark is let go, anybody in the world with an Internet connection can follow the movements of the shark in real time via OCEARCH’s website. It’s a fun way to see exactly what the OCEARCH scientists see, and to imagine Hamptons beachgoers dropping their iPads in the sand and running, screaming “Shark!”—especially interesting when you learn about the sheer size of Mary Lee.

Mary Lee is a monster shark. She is 16 feet long and weighs 3,456 pounds (females are larger than males in the great white world). Chris Fischer, who leads expeditions for OCEARCH, named Mary Lee after his mother.

“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,“ Fischer said.

Think about that for a minute. A guy who has made a career out of tagging sharks found this particular fish so glorious that he named it after his mom. If the Hamptons is going to welcome a shark, that’s the kind of pedigree you’d expect.

Mary Lee’s behavior, even from a non-research perspective, is fascinating in terms of how much traveling she does. When she hit the Hamptons on January 29, she almost immediately headed back south and then headed east, swam way out into the Atlantic Ocean toward the same longitude line as Bermuda, zigzagged a bit, popped her dorsal fin out of the water about 400 miles off the coast of the United States, hanging out in the open ocean, then recorded her latest “ping,” or location, on February 18, 2013 at 4 p.m., which showed she was about 150 miles north of the island of Bermuda.

If there is one thing maybe more striking that the distance of Mary Lee’s travels, it’s the fact that she moves at such remarkable speed. For example, on January 9, 2013, just one month ago, she popped up right off of the coast of Jacksonville Beach, Florida—not afraid to get close to the coast, she was no more than a mile off shore—then darted north. By January 27, she was recorded to be off the coast of New Jersey. That’s nearly 1,000 miles of swimming in 18 days. Between February 6 and February 15, she traveled roughly 800 miles between the coasts of Boston and Myrtle Beach.

That’s one fast shark.

While it’s certainly entertaining observing a great white shark travel around the Atlantic Ocean in the same manner as, say, playing a video game, you may ask yourself, “What’s the point of all of this?”

The stated purpose of OCEARCH is to champion the social, economic, and environmental benefits of sustainable fisheries management; protect and encourage sportsfishing access as a key catalyst of conservation; support efforts which identify, reduce, and prevent the occurrence of marine debris; and advance ocean research and education. OCEARCH believes in a balanced, science-based approach to rebuild, sustain, and conserve our living marine resources.

That’s all well and good, but another benefit of tagging Mary Lee and tracking her throughout the ocean is to let us Hamptonites know when not to go swimming. But don’t worry, if she comes near us again, she’s probably just passing through.

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