The body of a great white shark, one of the ocean's rarest and most powerful apex predators, was discovered last week washed ashore on Morris Island.
What killed the 13-foot, 2-inch female shark remains a mystery, though biologists are hoping that examination of tissue samples might shed some light on how the animal wound up dead on the beach, said Bryan Frazier, biologist with the S.C. Department of Natural Resources.
The shark did not appear to have suffered any fishing-related wounds, nor had it suffered any obvious forms of trauma, Frazier said. And though enormous by most standards, the fish actually was still quite young, at an estimated 10 to 13 years old, Frazier said.
Great whites don't mature sexually until they reach about 14 1/2 feet in length, he added. They can reach a length of more than 20 feet.
A visitor spotted the dead shark about a mile from the lighthouse on Morris Island, an uninhabited barrier island near Charleston. He reported the find to a marine mammal stranding hotline, which contacted DNR officials.
Searching the shoreline by boat, DNR fisheries scientists Josh Loefer and Jon Geddings spotted the carcass Nov. 18 but could not land on the beach due to heavy surf. On Thursday, they were able to make landfall and began preliminary examinations.
Loefer said the shark seemed in "pristine condition, a perfectly healthy shark, inside and out, lying dead on the beach."
Before leaving the site, the scientists collected tissue samples, pieces of its vertebrae and the animal's entire head.
After being delayed by bad weather, the pair returned Monday and performed a more thorough necropsy on the shark, including an examination of its stomach contents.
The shark's stomach was virtually empty, though the animal's strong digestive process could have removed signs of recent feeding.
The stomach did contain some scales that appeared to be from red drum. Large red drum, also known as spot-tail bass, "are congregated offshore this time of year," Frazier said. "So it could very well have been feeding on those."
Frazier, whose area of expertise includes shallow-water shark species and red drum, said the reasons behind the great white's stranding might never be known.
It's possible the shark died of starvation or illness while well offshore, and its carcass simply drifted up onto the beach, he said.
"Or it could have possibly gotten up in shallow water and not gotten out," Frazier said. "It's hard to say.
"As far as we know, there wasn't anything that would have pointed to any one cause," he said.
Tissue samples from the shark are being sent to labs across the country, where analysis could shed light on the shark's feeding habits, overall health and the amount of toxins accumulated in its system.
For marine scientists such as Loefer, the chance to examine such a well-preserved great white might be a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity.
Though the South Carolina coast is part of the great white's natural range, they typically show up only from late fall through early spring. But even then, they are rarely encountered and thought to be few in number.
"It's like a Bengal tiger, or any other apex predator," Loefer said. "They need a big range and a lot of food."
DNR scientists typically receive a few reports of great white sightings off the Lowcountry coast each year, and one commercial fisherman reported catching three last year and two the year before, Frazier said.
"Most people aren't fishing this time of year, so there could be even more out there," he said.
Matt Winter is editor of Tideline magazine. Reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org or 843-937-5568.
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