Mary Lee is lurking somewhere off our shores, but her presence has been more of a blessing than a nightmare.
The 16-foot great white shark has gotten a lot of publicity. Hopefully, via the attention, more people will learn her true nature. I was reminded how badly education is needed last week upon conversing with a clerk at a convenience store. I told her that I had just been wading in the sea.
“I’m never going in that ocean. I never have and I never will. Did you see about that shark that’s out there right now?” the clerk asked, pointing toward the sea. “Did you know that great whites are the only shark that hunts man?”
“No, they don’t. No shark hunts man. They eat fish and seals and sea lions and..”
“No, I did a project on it,” the 20ish clerk said loudly. “They hunt man. They’re the only sharks that do. I studied them. I did a project.”
“I’ve study them, too. Every day. I…”
The clerk was carrying on as if Mary Lee were going to jump from the dark outside and through the storefront’s plate glass window. There was no sense in arguing. I smiled and wished her a good night. She returned the gesture.
For the record, sharks do not hunt humans. They sometimes mistake us as prey. The most aggressive manner in which one could portray them is that they use their mouths to explore. Sometimes, in relatively rare encounters with humans, they take a little bit of a nibble. Sharks don’t have hands. They use their mouths to test.
Now back to the star of the show — Mary Lee. She weighed 3,456 pounds when tagged off Cape Cod, Massachusetts, on Sept. 17. She may very well weigh more now, depending on how successful she’s been while feeding. A Department of Natural Resources spokesperson said Mary Lee seems to be content with following schools of fish — not to mention the bigger fish that feed off them — cruising the waters between Wilmington, N.C., and northern Florida, from October through early December.
Mary Lee was believed to be just off the Grand Strand in late November. She was then tracked to Charleston Harbor, the Isle of Palms and Edisto before turning back north. She returned to our waters shortly thereafter. A Dec. 8 ping revealed she was swimming off the lower Grand Strand. Awesome, huh?
We wouldn’t know any of this without the research organization OCEARCH. Mary Lee is being followed by satellite after being caught and tagged by the crew of M/V OCEARCH, a 126-foot vessel equipped with a custom 75,000 hydraulic lift and research platform. The crew took bio-samples of Mary Lee before releasing her.
OCEARCH, a non-profit organization, works with leading researchers and institutions seeking to attain data on the biology and health of sharks. They also conduct research on shark life history and migration. By the way, anyone wishing to keep track of Mary Lee may do so at OCEARCH.org/ It’s a great website; it’s already among my favorites.
The organization’s ultimate goal is conservation. Shark populations worldwide are under threat with significant declines in shark populations documented in areas where they were once common. Removal or depletion of top predators like sharks from the food chain can set off a potentially catastrophic domino effect throughout the food web, threatening the balance of the ocean.
So, Mary Lee’s out there somewhere. Her powerful, crescent tail moves gracefully side-to-side. Her sense of smell, legendary. Her black eyes adjust slightly with the gentle, back-and-forth movement of her head. This head movement also helps her detect electromagnetic signals emitted by her prey and by those that dare to prey on her. Orcas are the only sea creatures known to kill great whites. Otherwise, great whites need only worry about other great whites.
Yes, she is a ferocious predator, but she is not a legitimate threat to man. Sadly, the opposite is closer to the truth.