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Greg Skomal clambered onto the hydraulic lift of a modified 126-foot Bering Sea crab fishing boat off of Cape Cod, staring at the object of his life’s devotion: 3,500 pounds of writhing, gunmetal gray muscle, shimmering under the ship’s spotlights.
The starstruck researchers took blood samples, checked the shark for parasites, implanted an acoustic pinger in its gut, and even performed an ultrasound—all within 15 minutes and without tranquilizers or anesthetics.
Exhausted and newly rigged with an arsenal of technology, the shark — christened Mary Lee — slid into the water and swam languidly out of sight. Skomal has spent decades on Martha’s Vineyard and Cape Cod as the state’s top shark scientist for the Division of Marine Fisheries. Earlier this month, a little over a year after capturing Mary Lee, Skomal stood in the office of his colleague, Simon Thorrold, a senior scientist at the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution.
The researchers are searching for recurring tracks and well-trod patches of ocean that might illuminate important nurseries, breeding or feeding grounds, information that could lead to eventual conservation measures.
Conventional wisdom held that the sharks would hunt seals off of Cape Cod in the summer and then head to Florida in the winter. Rather than orderly seasonal migrations, the two sharks have rocketed up and down the coast several times, traveling thousands of miles in only a few months, canyoneering and scaling underwater mountains and spending months well off the continental shelf in the middle of the North Atlantic, only to return to the coast by swimming under the Gulf stream.
Meanwhile in South Carolina, residents were alarmed to find half-eaten dolphins wash ashore suspiciously close to Mary Lee’s arrival in the area (Skomal says it probably was a shark that tore the dolphins apart, though a number of species could be responsible, and it’s unclear whether it was a case of active predation or carcass scavenging). While the Smart Position and Temperature, or SPOT tags anchored in the sharks’ dorsal fins, have revealed their horizontal movements, Ocearch attached an additional tag, known as a Pop-up Satellite Archival Tag, or PSAT, to Lydia to record diving depths and water temperature. What she’s doing at these incredible depths is unknown, though she may be feeding in the so-called “deep scattering layer,” a dense seam of fish and squid discovered by military sonar during World War II. While Lydia and Mary Lee have been great subjects, three other Atlantic whites tagged by Ocearch have been less cooperative. These studies have revealed regular migration patterns, as well as a number of hotspots where the sharks regularly congregate, such as the waters off the Farallon Islands, Ano Nuevo and Point Reyes, where Monterey Bay Aquarium research scientist Sal Jorgensen tagged four sharks earlier this month. It turns out mature females enjoy an occasional jaunt to Hawaii while baby sharks, wary of being cannibalized by the adults, are content to hide out off Manhattan Beach in Los Angeles. But even the more predictable Pacific great whites still mystify the scientists who know them best.
One clue could be found in the same kind of PSAT data that is revealing the diving habits of Lydia an ocean away.
Ocearch founder Chris Fischer, former host of the TV series Offshore Adventures and a marine conservation advocate, has tagged sharks in Guadalupe Island off of Mexico.
To Fischer, the situation underscores how much remains to be learned even about this well-monitored Pacific population. He says he has approached West Coast scientists about tagging the sharks and been rebuffed, a topic that still provokes some soreness (“Those guys hate me,” he says). When asked about Ocearch, Jorgensen is more diplomatic, saying simply that with dozens of tagged sharks already in the water, and with the acoustic tags returning up to four years of data on individual sharks, the group has all the data it needs.
Fischer sees the West Coast researchers as uncooperative and rooted in traditional academia, where scientists typically keep their data close until they’re ready to publish it. The biggest advantage is real-time data — PSATs pop off the sharks after months of data collection and float to the surface (most of the time) before transmitting all at once to a satellite — and location accuracy. The most striking difference though may be the method by which the two tags are attached to the shark.
Fischer, who’s not a scientist but has been tagging sharks since 2007, dismisses the criticism, noting that sharks regularly engage in far more harmful activity amongst themselves.
If the Pacific sharks are better understood, it’s partly because tagging sharks in the Atlantic has only become possible in the past few years.


The reason the sharks have just begun to reliably appear on the Cape every summer is visible from Google Earth.
For decades theirs was a slow and steady recovery as a remnant population in Canada recolonized New England. But the return of the great whites might actually reflect a real increase in their own population as well.
Sharks were decimated by the Atlantic swordfish longline fleet in the 1980s and 1990s (longlines are fishing lines 20 to 40 miles long that are baited with thousands of hooks and catch everything from seabirds to sea turtles). The unintended consequence has been catching fewer great whites as well. The sharks still face threats from the gillnet fisheries, particularly the monkfish fishery, but a 2011 endangered species listing for Atlantic sturgeon may soon rein in that industry as well (gillnets are gigantic walls of mesh that are left stationary in the ocean that target fish but also entangle larger animals like dolphins and turtles). Great whites also gained a measure of federal protection in 1997 when fisheries regulators outlawed their intentional capture, putting an end to the Jaws-inspired great white hunts that would regularly launch from Montauk in the late 1970s and 1980s.
More than any other animal, sharks are responsible for the foreboding sense that, as David Foster Wallace put it, the ocean is a “primordial nada . To landlubbers, sharks can seem mindless, indifferent to suffering and fundamentally unlovable, with a gaze as blank and pitiless as the sun. Sharks have been swimming the oceans for almost a half-billion years — they have been around longer than trees — yet their biggest threat comes from a single dish: shark fin soup. Unlike many fish, sharks mature late and have few offspring, making them particularly vulnerable to overfishing. Thorrold is worried that the oceans are being emptied of their apex predators just as scientists are beginning to understand the role they play in the ecosystem. Hundreds of miles away, Lydia and Mary Lee were still pinging day and night, near the shore, off the shelf, basking in the sun, plunging into the cold, dark deep and all the while baffling the scientists.
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The crown jewel of the operation, though, was a state-of-the-art satellite transmitter, drilled and bolted onto the shark’s dorsal fin. It has been nearly four decades since a creaky animatronic shark terrorized movie audiences and Amity Island in Jaws, but the lives of the Atlantic great whites still remain, for the most part, a mystery. Skomal has tagged other sharks in the Atlantic with PSATs but Lydia, it appears, is something of a performer.
Indeed, Lydia has been fond of plunging into the darkness off the continental shelf several times a day, maxing out at 3,543 feet. The layer rises hundreds of meters during the night and falls back down during the day, staying in perpetual darkness. As a species, sperm whales take nearly as much food from the ocean each year as humans do, he says. On the West Coast, researchers led by Barbara Block of Stanford have tagged more than 200 great white sharks over more than a decade with PSATs, as well as acoustic tags whose pings are picked up by hundreds of receivers along the coast. Jorgensen has been working with Block for the past eight years tagging and photo IDing sharks and analyzing the data.
Most peculiar is the midwinter migration between central California to the so-called White Shark Cafe, a giant patch of ocean between Hawaii and Baja California where the animals gather every year. Block’s team has found that when the males are in the Cafe they practice two types of dives: deep diving (likely for food) and a mysterious and energy-intensive type of dive characterized by rapid bursts up and down the water column. He’s committed Ocearch to making all of its data available to the public in real time.


The SPOT tags used by Ocearch had previously been used only on smaller animals like seals and turtles, and the tags do have some clear advantages over the use of PSATs alone.
PSATs rely on techniques honed by ancient mariners to determine their location, measuring daylight and water temperatures to estimate latitude and longitude.
PSAT tags are generally attached by dart-tipped harpoons rather than the dramatic on-board surgery of Ocearch, which has drawn criticism from some animal welfare advocates who claim the procedure traumatizes the animals, which are listed as a vulnerable species by the International Union for Conservation of Nature. That is thanks to the emergence of a single hotspot, the first of its kind on the East Coast: Chatham, Massachusetts on Cape Cod. Type Monomoy Island into the search bar, peruse the shores for a few moments and odd blotches composed of thousands of black flecks appear. As swordfish were severely overfished in the North Atlantic, regulators have drastically cut the fleet over the past two decades, from 300 in 1995 to fewer than 100 active boats today. Highlight reels of vicious attacks proliferating across cable TV do little to underscore their vulnerability and need for protection. Every year millions of sharks are captured at sea, often finned and then discarded alive to fuel the market for the soup, a status symbol among China’s growing middle class. On pristine reefs, untouched by human interference, sharks can account for almost three-quarters of the biomass.
20121 Kings 8:28 -- But please listen to my prayer and my request, because I am your servant. After her capture off of Cape Cod, Mary Lee’s pings led the researchers to Jacksonville in March where Ocearch, a research nonprofit, caught and tagged another mature female, Lydia, plying the murky, dolphin-stocked waters at the mouth of the St.
Well, it’s December and Mary Lee has, in fact, returned to Florida, but Lydia isn’t following that script. While the open oceans have been traditionally considered a desert for life, Thorrold thinks that this sentiment is more a reflection of human ignorance.
The water the sharks are swimming in is characterized by layers separated by temperature, and any pheromones would spread out horizontally along these layers.
A small but vocal group of critics started a Facebook page to chronicle what they see as the group’s abuses, and in one case detractors circulated a petition in an unsuccessful attempt to prevent Ocearch from getting a permit for an expedition in Massachusetts.
These are the colonies of grey seals, which had been hunted to virtual extinction in the region until the passage of the Marine Mammal Protection Act in 1972. For the whites, who may live upwards of a century, the boom has meant a return to ancestral hunting grounds. Her most recent flurry of pings has come from just off of Newfoundland, 1,000 miles away, in water just a few degrees above freezing. Jorgensen posits that the hot-and-bothered males at the White Shark Cafe are frantically inventorying these layers for wafts of lady chemicals that would lead them to the source.
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