- Associated Press - Sunday, January 21, 2018

SAVANNAH, Ga. (AP) - A shark named Mary Lee whose movements were followed by many Georgians has gone silent, but a male great white shark is now being tracked off the coast.

The male shark named Hilton is revealing its migrations and a steady stream of locations via satellite, The Savannah Morning News reported .

Both sharks are among the 33 great white sharks tagged so far along the East Coast by Ocearch, a nonprofit whose scientific expertise paired with social media have made the once reviled great whites relatable, the newspaper reported.

Ocearch catches the sharks, outfits them with satellite tags, names them and invites the public to track them in real time on its website .

Mary Lee was a hit with the public, and swam more than 39,000 miles and amassed a Twitter following of 129,000. Ocearch tagged the 16-foot Mary Lee on Cape Cod in September of 2012 and she became a prolific “pinger,” coming to the surface often and allowing the satellite to get a fix on her position.

But then her tag went silent in June.

Mary Lee pinged so regularly and so well for so long that we definitely didn’t expect her tag to last beyond five years,” said Ocearch founder Chris Fischer, who said he owes a debt of gratitude to the shark.

Mary Lee not only provided Ocearch with data that led to the discovery of a white shark birthing area off Montauk, New York, but her celebrity gave new life to the research operation. Ocearch was struggling when the crew caught Mary Lee, and Fischer thought she might be the last shark they tagged. He named her for his mother as a thank you for his parents’ support.

“Then she swam into the beach at Jacksonville, Florida and ignited all the whole Savannah, northeast Florida area,” Fischer said. “And so many people got interested in our work that actually Caterpillar came in and said, ‘This is a good thing; we want to help you keep going,’ and they funded our operations for three more years. And that was because of Mary Lee. I mean she saved Ocearch.”

Now, some believe fans of Mary Lee who are looking for another shark to follow could consider Hilton.

Ocearch tagged the nearly 13-foot mature male on March 3 off Hilton Head, an island off the South Carolina coast.

Unlike Mary Lee, who would swim way out into the Atlantic near Bermuda to avoid the violence of mating when pregnant, male great whites stick to the coast. And while Mary Lee led Ocearch to a mating area off Cape Cod, Hilton and also Lydia, a mature female tagged in Jacksonville in 2013, avoided Cape Cod and instead have made beelines for Nova Scotia, suggesting a second mating area there.

Understanding these apex predators - they’re the lions or wolves of the ocean - can help manage important fisheries that people depend on for food, the Savannah newspaper reported.

“It’s like putting together a really complex ancient puzzle that’s fundamentally important to understanding to make sure our kids can eat fish,” he said.

Savannah is in the middle of a shared winter feeding area that stretches from southern North Carolina to Cape Canaveral where the northwest Atlantic’s great white sharks forage on runs of red fish and black drum, even on vulnerable right whale calves.

“Their job is to cull the weak and the dead and the dying so the strong genes are passed on in all the different fish stocks,” Fischer said.

Hilton has already pinged repeatedly off the Georgia coast in 2018. And his @HiltonTheShark handle has 18,000 followers on Twitter.

“On the East Coast we are all swimming with giant mature male white sharks all the time,” Fischer said. “Look at Hilton’s track. He lives on the beach all the time. Females wander offshore for part of their lives but not males.”

Yet shark attacks are extremely rare.

“Nothing’s changed,” Fischer said. “We just know now. We’ve been swimming with them all the time. It shows how invisible they are, how elusive they are and how nervous they are.”

___

Information from: Savannah Morning News, http://www.savannahnow.com

Copyright © 2018 The Washington Times, LLC.

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