Large shark swims close to South Beach swimmer, shore
George, a great white shark that was nearly 10 feet long and weighed more than 700 pounds when he was tagged a year ago off Nantucket, has paid a visit to Everglades National Park.
At about 5 p.m. Sunday, a satellite tracker picked up the shark when he surfaced off Highland Beach, a remote campsite in the park’s Marjory Stoneman Douglas Wilderness Trail on the southwest coast. It’s the second time the shark has been located close to shore. While tracking can be imprecise, a third inshore ping could provide insight into whether George is becoming a regular Florida tourist.
“We’ll see where the next one shows up, but that’s pretty cool,” said Bob Hueter, a senior scientist at Mote Marine Lab and chief science advisor at Ocearch, the nonprofit that has been tracking George.
George is one of about 30 great whites being tracked by the group as part of a project to better understand the habits of the fish popularized — and some would say unfairly vilified — by the movie Jaws. Ocearch started tagging great whites with satellite trackers in 2012 and eventually hopes to track 60 off the U.S. east coast and Canada to improve data that previously relied largely on recreational and commercial fishing.
“There was a lot of fishery interaction data… but we didn’t know individual movements or where they were coming from,” Hueter said.
In the last year and a half, George has surfaced up and down the east coast. He was tracked near the edge of the continental shelf in the Gulf of Mexico, west of Key West, in early January. Last winter he surfaced three times off the coast in Northeast Florida after swimming south along the coast, so far covering more than 4,500 miles.
George is also likely far bigger now, weighing closer to 1,000 pounds, Hueter said.
While the sharks can handle cold water, some will swim south during the fall, Hueter said. Researchers are still trying to understand why, but they could be following food or heading for warmer water. Males and females also behave very differently. Females tend to spend time swimming in great loops in the eastern Atlantic, well east of Bermuda, during pregnancies that can last up to 18 months. Males tend to prowl the coast line.
Having a great white turn up in the park’s shallow waters is rare, said park spokeswoman Denese Canedo.
“It’s outside their normal habitat [in deep waters] and it is very, very rare that they would occur in our waters or our vicinity,” she said. “Our waters are very shallow and it’s just not conducive.”
Tracking the animals also has its complications. For satellites to locate the animals, they need to surface, and that varies from animal to animal, he said.
“Some like to call home a lot and spend more time at the surface,” Hueter said. “It doesn’t seem to follow any pattern of age or sex.”
Off the U.S. coast, Hueter said the sharks feed on marine mammals including whales and seals, which might explain the large numbers spotted on Cape Cod. Calving whales off Florida waters and in the Gulf could also be drawing the sharks south, he said. Great whites can often be found feeding around carcasses of baleen whales, whose thicker blubber they prefer to toothed whales.
And while Jaws portrayed them as vicious man-eaters, great white sharks, and sharks in general, infrequently attack humans. On Monday, the University of Florida’s International Shark Attack File reported 2017 was an average year for attacks, with 88 unprovoked attacks and five fatalities globally. The U.S. had no fatalities. Florida, which reports more attacks than any other state, had 31. The most occurred in Volusia County.
In recent years, two large whale strandings occurred near where George was spotted Sunday. In January, 81 false killer whales died near Hog Key, south of Pavilion Key, the largest stranding for the whales ever recorded in Florida. More than 20 pilot whales died in a stranding that stretched from the Lower Keys to Highland Beach.
Conservation efforts have helped the sharks recover in the northwest Atlantic in recent years, but conservationists still consider them vulnerable, threatened by trophy hunters, the shark fin trade and by catch in the commercial fishing industry. The information gathered by Ocearch’s tracking, Hueter said, will eventually help scientists come up with better ways to protect them. The open-source research and tracking — and a social media following that includes more than 85,000 followers on Twitter — has also made the research a lot more fun, he said.
“Obviously, the long-term purpose is so we can restore the ecological balance to the oceans and properly conserve these animals,” he said. “But it’s not just scientists getting information and it coming out three or four or five years later. We’re all acting like scientists to unravel these mysteries together.”
Follow Jenny Staletovich on Twitter @jenstaletovich