It’s the “bottom of the ninth” of great white shark season in the Lowcountry, and Chip Michalove woke up Thursday morning wanting to score just one more run.
Despite the nearly perfect fishing conditions off the South Carolina coast, the Hilton Head Outcast Sport Fishing charter captain, who has already caught, tagged and released five great whites this season, was thrown off his game in his home field where he’s been fishing for decades.
This time, there’s competition in town.
A team of shark scientists, researchers and fisherman with OCEARCH, the Goliath of the great white shark game — have been anchored off Hilton Head Island as a part of Expedition Lowcountry to find and study great white. The team has caught two of them since Feb. 27.
“I’m going out there in my 26-foot charter boat and my crew of two guys, competing against a 120-foot research vessel with a crew of 18 on board and enough chum and bait to take over a whole area,” Michalove said. “So I had to find another spot.”
He headed south and ventured far off coast, unknown territory for Michalove.
“Finding areas that hold great whites is probably 50 percent of it; the other 50 percent is having the tackle to stop a dinosaur,” Michalove said. “We took off for a little bit, and there were dolphins ripping through schools of bait and birds swarming the sea. I just had a feeling.”
The crew zigzagged across the area, found a sweet spot, and “anchored in the middle of nowhere.”
Three hours later, the apex predator of the Atlantic took the bait, and the crew was reeling in and tagging its sixth great white since December.
Not without a little fight, of course.
“He was the only shark I ever caught that extended his jaw and aggressively showed his teeth. I was thinking, ‘Oh my God, he could eat that camera we stuck in the water next to him,’ ” Michalove said. “He gave some nasty headshakes. He gave me whiplash when I held the rod.”
Michalove said the 11-foot monster calmed down after a few minutes, and the crew was able to place a satellite tag on the fish, which means the shark can be tracked in real time on the new app Sharktivity powered by the Atlantic White Shark Conservancy.
“He never got real erratic like some of the others have,” Michalove said. “And then he calmed down and was like ‘let’s get this over with.’ We had him on the side of the boat for 20 minutes. That one came in really easy.”
Michalove decided to name the shark after Hunter Austin, a Bluffton High School student with mental challenges. Michalove met Hunter though an annual event called “Fishing with Friends” and was blown away by the kid’s shark knowledge.
“Hunter quoted ‘Jaws’ more than anyone I’ve ever met and knew way more about sharks than I do. I just knew it would be cool for him to have his own shark to track,” Michalove said. “It meant the world when I talked to his parents, (and) they said how excited he was. He’s an awesome kid.”
Michalove said he had a revelation of some sort when he was talking to Hunter’s parents.
“Why in the world didn’t I think of this before? It’s stupid to name sharks after places. If I can have that kind of a effect, I’m going to name every shark from here on out after a kid battling cancer or someone less fortunate — someone who it will really mean something to, you know,” he said.
Michalove said he smiled heading home Thursday night as he watched the sun dip into the Atlantic, knowing it might be his last trip of the season. The six tagged sharks will contribute to data at the Atlantic Great White Shark Conservancy in Chatham, Mass., where Michalove has teamed with scientists to study great whites and their behavior.
“I’ve been blown away with all the the local support, and I really can’t believe we’ve landed seven great whites (and tagged six) this season. It’s been a dream,” Michalove said. “I’m already looking forward to next year. Hoping for an 18-footer!”