In the fall of 2012, a great white shark named Mary Lee surfaced off the Isle of Palms. A tag on her dorsal fin sent a signal to an orbiting satellite, which then sent the signal back down to computers across the nation. Within days, the 16-foot long, two-ton Mary Lee — and her winning smile of 3,000 teeth — was transformed into a media darling. The Lowcountry had been smitten by a shark.
Mary Lee's first admirers were local surfers who had been following the great white's progress on the OCEARCH's — a combination of ocean and research — shark tracker website. They took to social media to spread the word. Since then Mary Lee has been the subject of countless news stories here in town; she even received a send-up in The New Yorker last year. Since she was tagged off Cape Cod in September 2012, the shark has set off pings around the Lowcountry more than anywhere else. She seems to like Charleston, and Charleston seems to like her.
The researchers at OCEARCH, a non-profit that studies the predators of the deep blue sea, only recently began using satellites and GPS coordinates to track great whites, and Mary Lee is one of the team's biggest stars. In fact, her popularity has brought a considerable amount of donations to the non-profit. But as much as following the 16-foot shark is a fun diversion for Lowcountry great white lovers, OCEARCH's tracking program is of scientific significance.
"We're learning about great whites every day with this new technology," says Bryan Frazier, a marine biologist who studies sharks for the S.C. Department of Natural Resources. In particular, Mary Lee and her finny friends have corrected at least one popular misconception about great whites. Scientists knew the massive beasts occasionally visited Palmetto State waters but thought they only did so in the winter. For the rest of the year, they theorized that they swam along the northern shore.
"What we're finding out is that they're spending a lot more time down here than we initially thought," Frazier says.
Previously, researchers tracked great whites by recording visual sightings, but the new GPS tags respond to air, so every time a shark surfaces, it logs a blip on a screen, creating a much more comprehensive portrait of its movements.
Scientists believe there are only a few hundred great whites in the western Atlantic, and, so far, only a handful are currently being tracked by OCEARCH. Without a doubt, Mary Lee's celebrity status has meant a lot to those who study them.
"I think it opens up a conversation that will allow folks to have not necessarily sympathy for sharks, but a greater idea of the conservation and what they're actually doing there, that they're not a threat to humans," Frazier says. "A lot of folks still see them as Jaws. In reality, they've been here for a long time, and they're not out to get us."
Case in point: the last shark fatality in South Carolina was in the 1850s, Frazier says. The state averages about four bites a year, mostly grab-and-releases where a small shark might mistake a swimmer or surfer for food. He says even when Mary Lee is off our coast — her last visit was in November — no one should worry about being attacked.
"There are a lot of sharks out there, and they're swimming in among the surf zone," says Frazier, who says that Mary Lee might be pregnant. "But they're not seeing humans as someone they want to prey upon."