When Chip Michalove felt a “mammoth” tugging on his fishing line Thursday, he had a gut feeling he’s met this shark before.
The Outcast Sport Fishing charter captain has re-captured several monstrous tiger sharks just a few miles off shore from Hilton Head Island.
“After about 10 minutes of fighting the fish, you can really feel it if there’s a horse at the end of the line,” Michalove said. “She started tugging and I had a feeling it would be one of our regulars.”
After reeling in the 12-foot, 1,000-pound tiger shark with the help of his charter customers — a family from Pittsburgh — Michalove checked the serial number tag attached to the shark’s dorsal fin and confirmed his gut feeling was right — he’d caught Harry Etta twice before— in 2013 and again last month.
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Last month, when he pulled Harry Etta close to the boat, he noticed something about the shark’s fin.
“Part of her dorsal fin looked like decaying cardboard that was about to fall off,” Michalove, who is known as the “great white shark whisperer” said.
Harry Etta, a mature female, was tagged using a SPOT (smart position or temperature) device by SCDNR in November so the public could track her in real-time through the OCEARCH shark tracking app, until January, when the tag stopped working.
Bryan Frazier, SCDNR biologist who attached the SPOT tag to Harry Etta, said last month the fin didn’t look concerning from his perspective, but didn’t see close-enough photos to tell for certain.
Frazier said SPOT tags work much better on great white sharks compared to tiger sharks. Scientists can only track tigers for a couple months with SPOT tags before they stop working, as opposed to great white shark tags that work for several years.
“The fin looked slightly damaged, but didn’t look problematic since the shark is so big,” Frazier said. “There hasn’t been any research showing that the tags harm the sharks, other than cosmetic damage.”
Frazier said the SPOT tag, sponsored by the Harry Hampton Wildlife Fund, was actually a newer device built specifically for minimal dorsal fin damage.
Michalove said Harry Etta appeared to be swimming just fine with the slightly damaged dorsal fin. Last month, he re-captured Jax, a 1,400-pound tiger shark, for the second time in three years, and noticed similar damage on its fin.
Michalove said he was mostly concerned with smaller great white sharks getting SPOT tags attached to their weak dorsal fins.
“It makes me concerned about the pups,” he said. “I’ve seen 50-60 pound great white pups get tagged when their dorsal fins are nearly the same size as the satellite tag. There is just no way the fin could support the tag for very long.”
Frazier said it’s “possible” that the tags could permanently damage the smaller sharks, but he hasn’t seen any data on it.
Harry Etta was the first pregnant tiger shark to be tagged by SCDNR. She’s played a big role in the growing research on how the Port Royal and St. Helena sounds are crucial areas for the species’ re-productivity stages, possibly as nursing and breeding grounds for the large sharks.
“Tiger sharks are pregnant for around 18 months, so it’s very possible she’s still pregnant,” Frazier told The Island Packet when she was caught in July.
Tiger sharks have around 20-30 pups, born about 3 feet long in each litter, according to the Virginia Institute of Marine Technology.
Harry Etta, named after South Carolina conservationist Harry R.E. Hampton, was tagged by Michalove and SCDNR scientists in 2013, 2015, 2017 and now twice in 2018 in the Port Royal Sound area.
Tigers are known as one of the most dangerous and aggressive shark species because of the amount of times they’ve attacked humans. At adult size, they average between 10-14 feet long and 850-1,400 pounds and are the biggest shark species in the Lowcountry in the summertime. However, tiger shark attacks in South Carolina are extremely rare.
And, contrary to popular belief, Michalove finds tiger sharks to be “sweet.”
“They’re easy to deal with, especially when I”m taking the hook out of their mouths,” Michalove said. “Unlike lemon sharks — they’re evil like an alligator.”
Even though tiger sharks are abundant in the Port Royal Sound, they rarely bite humans in South Carolina.
Experts at the International Shark Attack File have said most attacks in South Carolina involve much smaller sharks with weaker bites, typically blacktips and spinners. In Beaufort County, there have been a total of 26 documented attacks on record and no reported fatalities or lost limbs.