Every rock star knows enough to acknowledge the little people who made it happen. Mary Lee is no different, all 3,000 teeth of her.
A year ago almost to the date, the great white shark arrived just past the Isle of Palms breakers, with a newly attached tracking device. A Web alert among surfers morphed into a social media pop trend of thousands tracking her every move, and made her a household name.
Now she is back for a star turn, just about where it all started. A little before 10 p.m. Tuesday, her satellite tag pinged off Pine Island in St. Helena Sound. She has spent the last week or two out there, apparently feasting on red drum.
And she just might have a titillating tidbit for her fans — “We’re guessing she’s gestating,” said Chris Fischer.
Yep, Mary Lee could soon be Mama Lee, her migrating pattern suggests. If she is, some 10-14 pups will emerge next spring, each a 4-foot-long, fully self-sufficient great white shark.
Fischer is the founder of Ocearch, a research nonprofit that has tagged her among a few dozen other sharks to learn more about the little-known habits and haunts of the creatures.
It’s … um … problematic to say just how big Mary Lee is anymore. She was 16 feet long and 3,456 pounds when she was tagged in Cape Cod in September 2012. Since then she has foraged the East Coast and deep ocean as far as Bermuda.
It’s a lot easier to say how she achieved her rock star status: We did it.
“In the Southeast, when you say Mary Lee, they know who you are talking about. You don’t even have to add ‘shark,’” Fischer said.
Ocearch was focused on science and conservation when Mary Lee turned into a social media darling. It caught the researchers flatfooted, Fischer says frankly. “We didn’t expect the public engagement.”
But it very likely saved the research program, attracting corporate funders like Caterpillar, Costa and Landry’s, he said. Ocearch now has expanded to include educational materials for young students.
And weirdly, Mary Lee’s fame has gone a long way to accomplishing one of the chief research goals. The public embrace of a shark with maybe the most sinister reputation among shark species “is a real breakthrough for the great white in terms of perception,” he said.
Great whites are the notorious “villain” of Great Coral Reef shark attacks in Australia, as well as surfer and paddler attacks off the West Coast.
They aren’t strangers to the Lowcountry, found occasionally off the Charleston jetties among other places. But unlike the West Coast, where surfers and paddlers resemble that area’s sea lions, “We’re not something that sharks consider a prey item,” said Mel Bell, S.C. Department of Natural Resources fisheries director when asked earlier about Mary Lee.
Here the great white is one more mysterious, mammoth sea creature that leaves onlookers in awe. The new awareness and interest will even find its way to the state Legislature in January. Rep. Chip Limehouse, R-Charleston, is pre-filing legislation to make it illegal under state law to catch and take a great white, the way it is under federal law.
“Mary Lee is obviously a Carolina Girl. I think they are a magnificent fish,” Limehouse said.
“This is the first time we have been able to watch and track a great white like this to see what enfolds, and you’re tracking with us,” Fischer said. “Carolinians have really shown the rest of the world how to participate in a project like this.”
As for Mary Lee, “she clearly loves the Carolinas,” Fischer said. She has set off the bulk of her pings around here since her tagging. This time of year, she apparently joins any number of other shark species at the mouth of inlets to feed on drum making their way offshore.
“We expected the Atlantic sharks to go south (after Cape Cod tagging). But we expected to find them in the deep ocean. We didn’t expect how coastal they would be,” Fischer said. “One thing that really surprised us all, your area of the country is a critical part of the shark’s life.”
Reach Bo Petersen at 937-5744, @bopete on twitter or Bo Petersen Reporting on Facebook.