It seems that eastern North Carolina has had a growing fascination with sharks since the Potash Corporation began hauling fossilized sharks’ teeth from deep under Beaufort County.
Capitalizing on this fascinating source of prehistoric fossils the little town of Aurora began to sponsor an annual Fossil Festival every Memorial Day. People from literally all over the world began to flock to Aurora to examine the exhibits of fossils the various exhibitors had on display. Most of these exhibits had to do with fossils and particularly with the huge fossilized teeth of a gigantic Great White shark, called by its scientific name, “Carcharodon megalodon.” Most of the fossil hunters just shortened this somewhat complicated Latin name to “megalodon” when they talked of this 90-foot long prehistoric Great White.
As the visitors to the Aurora Fossil Museum stood under the reproduced head of the megalodon it was hard to imagine that this massive fish once swam in the ocean along eastern North Carolina. With such a shark now extinct, their imaginations turned to the sharks that we now have in our coastal waters. Residents and visitors to our state became a little more conscious of sharks and a lot more conscious about where and when they went swimming in our coastal waters.
Several years ago my wife, daughter and I were vacationing on Portsmouth Island, enjoying the surf fishing that is notorious in and around Drum Inlet. It was very late in the afternoon and the fish were biting. We were taking numerous bluefish, puppy drum and sea mullets. Like so many surf anglers, my daughter decided to wade out a little farther into the surf to be able to cast just a little further into the outgoing tide. Just as her lure hit the water she jumped up and down and began to frantically run/swim and splash back to the dry sand.
“Dad” she yelled, “something really big just brushed up against me out in the water.”
We talked about it for a few minutes while she calmed down and then went back to casting and catching supper.
We wondered just what it could be that brushed up against her in that chest deep water. She wasn’t hurt. She’d just been scared and she had calmed down a lot by bedtime.
The next morning the radio broadcasted the news that a shark had killed a fisherman off Virginia Beach. The old feeling of our fears of the last evening’s mystery encounter in the surf returned.
We knew that sharks that usually remained well offshore would swim in closer to the shore as it began to get dark. This was particularly true when an outgoing tide would be sweeping lots of baitfish out to sea. Sharks and other predators would gather at this inlet to feed. We wisely decided that in the future we’d not be wading too far out into the ocean under similar circumstances.
So, who is this “Mary Lee” and what’s she got to do with our coast anyway?
The Mary Lee that visited our coast recently is a 16-foot long Great White shark that weighed some 3,456 pounds when a research group called “OCEARCH” caught her off Cape Cod last September. The scientists carefully pulled this massive Great White onto a special wet platform that held Mary Lee safely while a sonic tag was inserted into her back. The shark was monitored at all times under expert guidance and maintained on the platform by pumping water over its gills. All fieldwork was done according to agreed and approved protocols based primarily on ethical considerations, and overseen by leading scientists/researchers. The scientists then lowered Mary Lee back into the water of the ocean and sent her on her way.
The tag is an electrical device that, when the shark breaks the ocean’s surface, broadcasts Mary Lee’s exact position in the Atlantic Ocean to a satellite overhead. The satellite then relays the exact position of the shark to OCEARCH, which plots the shark’s travels on nautical maps.
OCEARCH facilitates unprecedented research by supporting leading researchers and institutions seeking to attain groundbreaking data on the biology and health of sharks, in conjunction with basic research on shark life history and migration. The researchers they support work aboard the M/V OCEARCH, a unique 126’ vessel equipped with a custom 75,000 hydraulic lift and research platform, which serves as both mothership and at-sea laboratory.
As to just why OCEARCH is conducting these studies they say, “Shark populations worldwide are under threat with significant declines in shark populations documented in areas where they were once common.”
The International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN) has determined that of the shark and ray species assessed, 30 percent are threatened or near-threatened with extinction. Conserving sharks is thus currently a global conservation priority and devising successful conservation and management strategies is largely limited by our scientific knowledge on their biology. Significant information is lacking with regard to the medium and long range movement patterns of white sharks. Traditional research has focused on fine small scale movements of Great White sharks within known aggregation sites. Gaining this previously unattainable information enables more effective shark and ocean conservation and - protection of human life.
Their collaborative work with leading researchers and their institutions generates data in a number of areas pertaining to shark ecology.
With Mary Lee signaling her exact position to the scientists every time she surfaces, it’s fascinating to see the charts that OCEARCH shows on their website (http://www.ocearch.org). What’s even more fascinating to us Tar Heels is to see the places along our coast that Mary Lee recently visited.
Mary Lee’s travels in the Atlantic Ocean have taken her from Cape Cod down the coast to the Carolinas. Most of her travels were a bit offshore but on several occasions, Mary Lee surfaced and her sonic tag announced to the scientists that she was literally in the surf off Cape Lookout and Cape Fear. Perhaps the dining menu around our inlets looked promising to this animal. The positions that OCEARCH plotted and made available to the public via the Internet certainly made a lot of humans that visited our ocean beaches think about just what’s out there.
On the other hand, maybe Mary Lee was just paying a visit to the areas that her ancient ancestors called home many, many years ago. Even though small when compared to Carcharodon megalodon, Mary Lee (Carcharodon carcharias) is one big fish.
The research being carried on by OCEARCH is proving to be a fountainhead of knowledge not only to the fishery scientists but to the average American these days. The interest in the ecology of the world revolves around the balance of nature and the environment and it’s for sure that the large aquatic predators play a large part in the overall health of the world.