Have We Been Swimming With Great White Sharks All Along?

Credit: OCEARCH/Rob Snow

It’s a steamy July day on New Jersey Shore and, form our position offshore, we’re so close to “Great White,” the famous wooden rollercoaster at Wildwood, that we can nearly see the faces of the riders as they scream in delight. We can also make out the bathers and umbrellas nearby on beach. Hell, we can practically smell Curly’s famous boardwalk fries. Which all seems rather odd, since we’re just offshore hoping to catch an actual great white shark.

Two dozen of us are onboard the Ocearch, a 126-foot former Bearing Sea crabbing vessel named for the global non-profit that has earned a fair amount of attention for itself in the past five years by attaching tracking devices to hundreds of sharks — not just great whites, but tiger, hammerhead, sand tiger, blue, and makos.

The smaller sharks, caught with a hook and a tuna head, get tagged in the water from a smaller boat. The behemoths get lifted onto the deck of the Ocearch with a hydraulic lift. In either case a few samples are taken and then the sharks are tagged before being released. When the shark surfaces again, the tag sends a “ping,” or GPS signal, to Ocearch’s Global Shark Tracker. By playing connect the dots, the team, led by 48-year-old executive director Chris Fischer, can record the shark’s travels.

The pings are shared online in near real-time, and these days folks along Mid-Atlantic stretch have turned a great white named Mary Lee, who Fischer and crew tagged in 2012, into a celebrity. In November 2015, three of her pings placed her just yards from millions enjoy these waters in the summer. The first ping was off the coast of South Jersey. The second was inside a relatively narrow bay. The third placed the 16-foot, 3,500-pound Atlantic matriarch inside the mouth of Barnegat Inlet, a narrow barrier-island channel just north of Atlantic City. Connecting Mary Lee’s dots would show her cruising into Little Egg Inlet, then up under a causeway bridge, right past the iconic Barnegat Lighthouse, and eventually back into the open ocean, a mere cast from where thousands of people were sleeping.

At that time, Ocearch tweeted that the final GPS signal was “another low-quality ping” (90 seconds above water is considered a very accurate reading). But Ocearch crafted that specific message to diffuse any potential hysteria: Good sized sand tigers are regularly caught in these waters, but nothing on the scale of Mary Lee. Even with the careful messaging, Mary Lee became a sensation, eventually tallying up 128,000 Twitter followers, more than Method Man or Bill de Blasio. 

Aboard the Ocearch vessel, the feeling is that the two-ton beast was in our bay, near my community of Long Beach Island, New Jersey, where thousands of beachgoers regularly crab, paddle, and hang off inflatable orcas.

“That was likely real,” says Fischer, Ocearch’s executive director, of the pings. “At the time, I remember communicating that Mary Lee could be moving up the bay, but she’s likely moving up the beach. Because it was so close, we were just trying to keep people chill and not have anybody go out and try to chase a shark. But that was in the early part of the tracking when we didn’t realize how much our sharks were coming into the bays and rivers, and how common it was.”

Also, no one questions the legitimacy of other sharks’ pings slightly further to the East, where people surf year-round, chase striped bass, freedive, and swim with their kids. If those pings are off by a bit, the shark could be a mile off the beach instead of a half-mile. Or it could be a few hundred yards closer to shore.

Mary Lee’s little trips to the beach raise a lot of questions, but perhaps the most fascinating is this: is Mary Lee a rogue hunter? Is she the stray coyote that shows up in Central Park? Or have significant numbers of great whites been cruising just off our shores all along?

Between opportunistic mating areas, long gestation periods, and likely extended recovery time after birth, Great Whites have no predictable annual cycles, which makes them extremely difficult to study. Unlike, say, humpback whales, they are solitary and don’t have habitual group migration. But from what scientists know, we are in the midst of a comeback of great whites in coastal Atlantic waters.

“There is definitely a rise on the East Coast, and that’s related to the Marine Mammal Protection Act of 1972, which protected seals, sea lions, and other species that large great whites distinctly prefer,” says Burgess,” says Dr. George Burgess, director of the International Shark Attack File of the Florida Museum of Natural History. “And where you have seals, you have great whites.”

Fischer also says shark numbers are going up and feels that 2017 will represent a drastic increase in great white population.

“In the '80s, a lot of recreational fisheries had been depleted and management was trying to find ways to bring back the recreational economy,” says Fischer. “The thing that they seemed to be doing at the time was removing gillnets.” In New England, removing the gillnets helped the striped bass (and the recreational economy surrounding them) recover. The side effect of that was getting many of the gillnets out of the white shark nurseries, one of which is just offshore of Long Island and New Jersey. The ban likely saved immature great whites, and now that we are 25 to 30 years since the ban, Fischer estimates the population is about to reach a frenzy in the Atlantic. He points to the recent DNA samples they take as proof: wider varieties indicate larger populations.

Burgess feels the spike is, or will be, less dramatic, like the animals themselves — which he actually describes as “living life in the slow lane” — but that shark awareness, or “great white hype,” is certainly hitting a peak.

“You have to remember that the number of humans are on the rise too,” says Burgess, who has been researching sharks and other fish since 1972 (six years before “Jaws”). “There are more eyes and those eyes have phones. Those poor sharks don’t have much chance of a quiet visit anymore.”

Also, 2015 saw a record number of unprovoked shark attacks worldwide (98), and that led to media hysteria. So now once there is a shark sighting, even a peaceful one, “there’s a whole flotilla of boats or planes and helicopters trying to get a shot for the news,” Burgess says. “Anytime you have a shark near the coast you need an air-traffic controller up there.”

Additionally, the popularity of stand-up-paddleboarding on both coasts has given us a higher vantage point than a surfboard or kayak to better see a fin. Nowadays, there’s also a seemingly endless string of dudes in sandals flying their new drones for a bird’s-eye view, and they’re easily able to spot a sharks’ telltale shadow in the water. So it seems that we may simply be better able to see what was perhaps always there.

One thing that’s hard to debate is the level of awareness that Ocearch has brought to sharks — both how prevalent they have become in our waters and how close to us they’ve always been. “The white shark is an animal that does make forays into the surf zone on a regular basis,” says Burgess.

Fischer agrees: “Oh yeah, great whites are cruising Jersey surf spots.”

Not that you'll be able to see them. “Mary Lee’s been tagged out there for five years. She’s 17 feet long and no one’s even seen her,” says Fischer. “Even I can’t leverage the tracker to get on her. Think through the logistics. You’d have to commit to sitting in a spot 30 days before and 30 days after, you’d never go to sleep. You’d just sit out there and hope. The vastness of the ocean is so radical. You’re talking about a needle in that haystack.”

Mary Lee may well be representative of the great white’s natural tendencies to avoid humans. It turns out that the number of shark related incidents in 2015 was an anomaly, and stats dropped back to the average of 81 attacks last year. Burgess says most attacks are a result of mistaken identity — "next to those seal or sea lion populations, that’s where we want to be careful.” In other words, great whites have survived for 16 million years by being discriminate hunters. So even if we’re constantly sharing the waters with them, they’re probably smarter than to go mucking about with us.