Roughly four miles off the coast of Hilton Head Island, a team of 17 scientists and researchers wait patiently aboard a 126-foot vessel anchored in Port Royal Sound.
Their quest: find great white sharks.
Beneath the vessel, is a nautical hub where the apex predator of the Atlantic spends the winter months.
“We’re here in the Lowcountry because our sharks led us here,” Chris Fischer, OCEARCH’s founding chairman and the expedition leader said Monday aboard the M.V. OCEARCH, a crabbing ship-turned-research vessel.
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The research group has caught, satellite-tagged, and tracked a total of 22 great white sharks in the Atlantic since 2012. Scientists have monitored the mature sharks on their migratory journey from Cape Cod, Mass., in the fall to the warmer Carolina coast in winter.
“What everyone thought was the Cape Cod white shark or the northeastern United States white shark was really the Lowcountry white shark,” Fischer said. “They’re spending just as much or more time down here than anywhere else in their migratory path. We had no idea that our sharks were in the Lowcountry so much.”
The team of shark researchers and fishermen have been sailing off the coast of Hilton Head since Feb. 28 as a part of Expedition Lowcountry.
On Friday, the team caught, tagged, and released its first great white of the expedition — a 1,326-pound, 12.5-foot, mature male they named Hilton, after “the great people of Hilton Head Island.”
They also caught, tagged, and released Weimar, a 304-pound, 9.4-foot male tiger shark named after OCEARCH’s long time supporter, Ruth Weimar.
That catch was not surprising.
“With the warmer than expected water temperatures, we thought we might see a tiger shark before the end of the expedition,” said Bryan Frazier, the lead scientist and a marine biologist at the South Carolina Department of Natural Resources.
To catch both was.
“But to catch a white and a tiger on the same day was completely unexpected and will be quite beneficial to our research.”
On Sunday, the group reeled in Savannah — a young, 8.5 foot female great white.
Fischer said that the success so far will lead the researchers back to the Lowcountry for future expeditions.
“I think we’re definitely coming back to the Lowcountry,” Fischer said. “We’ve already tagged two in one week, which is amazing. I was hoping on a trip like this to get one white shark.”
“But if we could come here and work in the late winter, we can help solve the mystery of the great white shark’s migratory path,” Fischer said.
Frazier said scientists have known for years that great whites swim in Lowcountry waters. But tracking sharks has changed the way the animalsare perceived.
“Tracking data suggests (great whites) may prefer coastal waters to open ocean, but people shouldn’t be nervous,” Frazier said. “They’re not interacting with people. We’re not on the menu.”
In fact, Fischer said it’s a good sign for the Lowcountry’s oceanic ecosystem to see them in area waters.
“I think the sharks like the Lowcountry because you all have done an excellent job looking after your resources,” Fischer said. “There is a lot of fish here. White sharks don’t go to places where there isn’t a lot of life. If you were interested in the abundance of your ocean, you would be more nervous if you weren’t seeing white sharks here.”
The scientists are taking blood, DNA, and bacterial samples to help “solve the puzzle of the great white,” which Fischer calls the “key to the ecosystem.”
“We’re trying to find another predictable work site where we can capture more sharks for scientists faster and figure out where they are moving and mating and giving birth,” Fischer said. “If we can get the white shark moving toward abundance, we will have the maximum abundant amount of fish for our grandchildren to eat.
“The great white is like the lion of the ocean,” he said. “If we get them rolling, we solve the puzzle of the white shark’s life. They keep everything in balance.”
Fischer said he hopes to capture and tag at least 40 more great whites.The scientists hope to tag more sharks on this expedition in order to create a sizable sample for understanding the species’ habitat usage and movements.
Expedition Lowcountry will continue off South Carolina coast until March 15.