Somewhere off Kiawah Island as many as a dozen young great white sharks might be nosing around. They'd be curious. They were just born
Yep, Mary Lee might just have given birth, researchers say. After lolling in the deep sea off the Georgia-South Carolina coast since November 2013, the Lowcountry's own pop icon shark came back and pinged about 20 miles southeast of Kiawah Island in late June. She hasn't pinged since.
Researchers for the shark tracker OCEARCH, who suspected from her movements in November that she might be pregnant, now speculate she came in to drop her pups near where the Lowcountry estuaries spill to the ocean, where there are lots of fish to eat. Then she apparently went beneath the surface - where her satellite transmitter doesn't ping - and started swimming.
They expect her next signal to sound up near Cape Cod, Mass., where she first was tagged with the transmitter in 2012 and where she would be expected to breed again.
"Based on the timing and what we know from 20 expeditions around the world tracking great white sharks, that's my best guess," said Chris Fischer, of OCEARCH.
"There is a possibility (she gave birth)," said Bryan Frazier, S.C. Department of Natural Resources marine biologist, who is working with OCEARCH on a project tagging tiger sharks. "We've seen some pup great whites before in South Carolina waters. But by and large, there's not much evidence they pup down here."
Not much is known about where the sharks drop pups, though, he said. "What we do know is (Mary Lee) is spending much of her time in this area. We're learning we don't know as much as we thought we did."
The two-ton alpha predator has become the darling of the East Coast since she was tagged off Cape Cod, two years ago in September, then turned up just past the breakers at Isle of Palms two months later. Media attention of her near-shore arrival spurred a popular interest in the shark and her whereabouts.
For nearly two years now she has foraged along nearly all of the East Coast and the deep ocean as far as Bermuda, with thousands of people tracking her at the OCEARCH website. The one constant is she keeps returning to Lowcountry waters.
"Top predators aggregate in the best spots," Fischer said. "There's no question that area of the world you are in down there is an important area."
OCEARCH is a nonprofit organization that tags shark fins with small satellite trackers, which "ping" the sharks' locations when their fins breach the surface. The group tracks those pings in real time on an online map, and scientists use the data to learn more about shark habits, which are still largely a mystery.
OCEARCH was focused on science and conservation when Mary Lee turned into a social media favorite. It caught the researchers flatfooted. But it very likely saved the research program, attracting corporate funders. And it accomplished a chief research goal: changing people's perception of the animal with a sinister reputation.
She's still turning heads. South Carolina-Georgia waters have long been considered mostly a winter feeding ground for shark species such as the great white, and no one really has been certain just where they go to birth, although the presence of numerous younger sharks in some spots suggests those are nursery grounds.
"To have a great white give birth in our backyard..I don't know, man. It's pretty mesmerizing," said Hilton Head sports charter captain Chip Michalove, who contacted OCEARCH after learning about Mary Lee and spurred the research tracking tiger sharks that gather in nearby Port Royal Sound.
"There was no doubt South Carolina and Georgia were winter grounds, but to have a great white, 3,000, 4,000 pounds in the waters at these temperatures is pretty major. It's pretty wild. There's no question this area is a hot spot for all sharks - great whites, tigers, lemons."
Reach Bo Petersen at 937-5744, @bopete on Twitter or Bo Petersen Reporting on Facebook.