Scientists to track tiger sharks in Port Royal Sound

Ocearch satellite-tagged Mary Lee off the coast of Chatham, Mass., on Sept. 17. Scientists from the S.C. Department of Natural Resources will work with OCEARCH to tag and track about 30 tiger sharks as they migrate in and out of the sound.

The legacy of Mary Lee continues.

The great white shark that became the darling of the Lowcountry and the East Coast now has spurred more research to teach people about shark behavior here.

A champion shark fisherman, curious about why so many tiger sharks could be found in Port Royal Sound near Hilton Head, contacted OCEARCH after hearing about the group radio-tracking Mary Lee as she roamed the waters offshore. Now, scientists from the S.C. Department of Natural Resources will work with OCEARCH to tag and track about 30 tiger sharks as they migrate in and out of the sound.

The sound might have the largest concentration of tiger sharks of any non-ocean area in the state or East Coast, said Bryan Frazier, a DNR marine biologist. He suspects it might be because the sound is more saline, more salt water than others.

"If it's something unique, we need to know why" to better manage the species, Frazier said.

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.

Mary Lee is the two-ton alpha predator that captivated people's imagination after she was tagged off Cape Cod, Mass., in September 2012, then turned up just past the breakers at Isle of Palms two months later.

Media attention of her near-shore arrival spurred a wide interest in the shark and her whereabouts. She returned last year as something of a pop icon, watched by thousands as she made her into St. Helena Sound near Beaufort.

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.

Tagging tiger sharks will help expand the breadth of data scientists can use to understand them, Frazier said. About 10 of the trackers will be listed on the OCEARCH map, so the public can study the sharks, too, he said.

At this point, it's nearly impossible to say how many tiger sharks frequent Port Royal Sound, Frazier said.

"We think it's in the hundreds, but that's difficult to tell," he said. "Until we get some data, we can't really make an accurate estimate of anything like that."

Sharks could be drawn to the sound because of its unique floor, according to Chip Michalove, captain of Outcast Sport Fishing on Hilton Head Island, the fisherman who contacted OCEARCH.

"Port Royal Sound is the deepest natural channel on the East Coast," Michalove said. "Not only is it the deepest, we also have the most structure."

The ledges, caves and coral that make up the floor become home to smaller fish and creatures. Those fish then become meals for larger fish - all the way up the food chain to large sharks, he said.

When the DNR scientists arrive later this month, Michalove will take them out on the water. Sharks will be returning to the sound's warming waters at about the same time.

A champion shark fisherman, Michalove conducts private charters during the summer to fish for sharks and other sport fish in the sound. On any given day, his boat will see or catch three to four sharks, Michalove said.

"Everything starts moving up here about the end of April, then it catches fire," he said. "When they come in, and it's just the tiger sharks, you can just catch one after another after another."

If all goes well, the tiger shark program could be expanded to more sharks next year, Frazier said.

Analyzing all that data will be complicated, but fishing for a shark is pretty simple, Frazier and Michalove said. It just demands a bigger rod, reel and boat, according to Frazier.

As for bait?

Possibly chunks of barracuda or bonito, Michalove said.

"We often use other shark (meat)," Frazier added. "It's a shark-eat-shark world out there."

Staff writer Bo Petersen and The Beaufort Gazette contributed to this report.