January 5, 2014

Great whites 'pinging' off SC coast

A pair of special, extra-large visitors are making their rounds off the coast of the Lowcountry.

Great white sharks Genie and Mary Lee are Lowcountry regulars, repeatedly pinging their location off the South Carolina coast to the satellites that track them, according to OCEARCH, the nonprofit organization that tagged the sharks to study their migrating habits.

After three months of silence, the nearly 15-foot, 2,292-pound Genie pinged Sunday along the Continental Shelf near Charleston.

She joins 16-foot, 3,456-pound Mary Lee, who has repeatedly pinged her location along the Georgia coast since her tagging in 2012. Most recently, Mary Lee pinged her location just off Tybee Island on Dec. 24.

Scientists know very little about the massive sharks, but studying their behavior through the OCEARCH trackers is leading to new observations, said Bryan Frazier, a marine biologist with the S.C. Department of Natural Resources.

"We've just really never had much access to them to study them, despite their size and their presence, but the reality is, they've been here on our coast for a long time," he said. "We don't believe this is a new behavior; we're just finding out more about it right now."

White sharks are typically found off the coast of South Carolina in winter, when the water is cooler, Frazier said. They likely head here to hunt the spiny and smooth dogfish sharks or adult red drum, he said.

"These guys probably spend a lot of time when the whales are here, hoping to get a free meal," said Al Segars, a DNR veterinarian in Beaufort County.

Genie and Mary Lee are two of four white sharks the program has tagged in the Atlantic Ocean, and they offer just a glimpse into the behavior of the untold number of white sharks off the East Coast, Frazier said.

"Who knows how many are actually out there?" he said. "There could be five or six outside of Charleston, and we just wouldn't know."

But that should be no cause for alarm.

Only about four shark bites happen in South Carolina each year, and there have been no shark-related fatalities in the state since the 1850s, Frazier said.

"If you think about how many people are in the water every day off the coast of South Carolina, (bites or attacks) are really rare, and most of them require a few stitches at most," he said.

Mary Lee became a social media sensation when she arrived outside the Isle of Palms breakers in November 2012, with the newly attached tracking device. A Web alert among surfers morphed into a pop trend of thousands tracking her every move and made her a household name. Genie joined her in December 2012, pinging off Edisto Beach.

The great whites are among a few dozen sharks tagged by OCEARCH to learn more about the little-known habits and haunts of the creatures.

The Charleston Post and Courier contributed to this report.

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