More great white sharks gather off Charleston each winter than almost anywhere else along the Southeast coast. The reason is simple: They're foodies.
Great whites, along with nearly every other fish-foraging shark, are drawn to river deltas and jetty flues such as the Charleston Shipping Channel because fish moving out of them for the winter make those waters a feast.
You have to think of Lowcountry inlets as fast-food drive-up windows this time of year, serving up red drum and other fishy morsels.
That's why eight transmitter-tagged great whites, including three off South Carolina, are currently tracking through Southeast waters.
On a recent morning, a shark dubbed Hal pinged just a few miles off Murrells Inlet — all 1,420 pounds of him — not that far beyond the breakers.
The greatest concentration of "pings," or the electronic signals transmitted when a tagged shark surfaces, occurs off Charleston and Cape Canaveral, Fla., according to Ocearch, a nonprofit organization tracking the sharks.
"The heavy concentration of our adult and near-adult white sharks in this region suggests it's an important winter habitat," said Dr. Robert Hueter, Ocearch chief science advisor, in a news release this week. "The eight sharks are a good indication there are plenty more white sharks in the area with them."
Sharks are prevalent off South Carolina. Ongoing federal research indicates several shark species give birth pretty much everywhere along the coast that has a fish-rich river delta. Tens of thousands of pups, or newborns, throng in the estuaries each summer.
They're not the swimmer-attacking beasts the movies would have you believe. A few people are nipped or worse each year in the Carolinas. But nearly all strikes are unintentional, with the animal mistaking humans for prey fish in the roiling surf.
South Carolina hasn’t had a fatal attack since the 1850s.
The great white is the mysterious, rarely seen apex predator of the ocean. Considered the “lion of the ocean,” it’s the largest known predatory fish — mischaracterized and vilified as a man-eater by the 1970s book and movie “Jaws.”
The great white became a pop culture meme of sorts in 2012 when the nearly two-ton Mary Lee pinged just past the breakers at Isle of Palms. An alert posted on a surfing web page brought a mention from The Post and Courier, and the tale of Mary Lee went viral on social media.
More than 100,000 people ended up following her whereabouts until the signal ceased in late 2017, when the transmitter apparently ran out of battery power. Interestingly enough, the tracking suggested that Mary Lee might have given birth off South Carolina, too.
The draw of food-rich winter Lowcountry estuaries has long been surmised among anglers and biologists. The tracking confirms it.
Research with electronic transmitting tags has dramatically advanced what we know about great whites and how they use our waters, said Bryan Frazier, a S.C. Department of Natural Resources wildlife biologist who studies sharks.
"We now know how important South Carolina’s coast is as an overwintering ground, but many mysteries, including what food sources they are targeting, remain. We know they opportunistically feed on whale carcasses, but what sustains them between these rare meals is unknown," he said.
However, "it’s safe to say, though, that humans aren’t on the menu," Frazier said.