WILMINGTON — Shark Week came a few days early in the Port City when a 12-foot-long great white shark was tracked just off of the coast of Bald Head Island.
It was just before 7 a.m. last Friday when Hilton the great white shark first pinged off of the Carolina coast.
But he didn’t stick around long.
Hilton pinged again on the North Carolina coast around 10:52 p.m. the same day before swimming further north to the Crystal Coast.
Hilton is just one of several sharks being tracked by research group OCEARCH.
OCEARCH specializes in tracking and studying marine animals, especially great white and tiger sharks.
The group uses a boat, named the M/V OCEARCH, to lift sharks out of the water so they can be studied. The “at-sea laboratory” is capable of holding up to 75,000 pounds, and allows researchers to perform 12 studies on the animals in 15 minutes before releasing them back to the wild, according to the OCEARCH website.
After OCEARCH discovers a shark, it gets a name, a Twitter account, the #DontFearTheFin hashtag and becomes part of the OCEARCH family. The organization is able to track the sharks in real time and uses the data to learn more about their patterns and behaviors.
When a shark pings, it means that their fin has broken the surface of the water and sent a signal to a satellite.
“These animals are vital to the health of our oceans, and we are heavily invested in shark conservation and making sure these top predators remain in the ocean,” Robin Nalepa with the North Carolina Aquarium at Fort Fischer said.
“We have researchers on staff who are working to tag sharks, and are working to find out more about their migration patterns, where they go, and what they’re doing,” she continued.
Expedition Mid-Atlantic is OCEARCH’s current project, in which scientists will travel to Virginia, Maryland, Delaware and New Jersey to study and track great white, tiger, blue and shortfin mako sharks, according to the organization’s website.
A shark on a mission
OCEARCH first discovered Hilton on March 3 in Hilton Head, S.C.
At a full-grown 1,300 pounds, Hilton isn’t the largest great white shark to swim near the Carolina coastline.
A 14-foot-long, 2,300-pound great white shark named Katherine has been known to swim around the Carolina coast, and scientists say she hasn’t fully matured yet. She last pinged near the Outer Banks on June 10.
— Katharine The Shark (@Shark_Katharine) July 20, 2017
Since he was first tagged by OCEARCH, Hilton has traveled 3,233 miles up and down the southern east coast, venturing as far north as the Eastern Shore. His July swim is the closest he’s been to the North Carolina coastline since March.
But OCEARCH Founder and expedition leader Chris Fischer believes Hilton will likely continue moving north with a purpose: to mate.
While it’s not uncommon for great white sharks to pass through or feed in the Cape Fear area, North Carolina isn’t a known mating site for the species.
According to an Instagram post authored by Fisher, Hilton may be moving toward Cape Cod or Sable Island, Canada, to mate in late summer or early fall. If he’s successful, his babies could be born in the Long Island area in May or June.
Sharks of the Cape Fear
Although great white sharks visit the shores of the Cape Fear coastline throughout the year, according to NC Sea Grant, a division of North Carolina State University, they’re mostly just passing through.
The organization states that, “White sharks tagged off Cape Cod have been tracked to North Carolina waters, where they generally stay well offshore but occasionally venture close to the beach.
“White sharks can occur year-round in North Carolina waters, but usually are seen during the winter and early spring. With their bright white bellies, large black eyes and triangular teeth, white sharks are easily distinguished from other local species.”
According to Nalepa, in North Carolina, we have around 50 different species of sharks at any given time of the year. Although many of these are transient species, around 20 species are here year round.
Local species include many of the great whites smaller relatives, like the blacknose, dusky, sandbar, tiger, Atlantic sharpnose, bull, blacktip and sand tiger sharks.
— HiltonTheShark (@HiltonTheShark) July 15, 2017
According to N.C. Sea Grant, “many species in North Carolina waters rarely enter estuaries. The coastal waters of North Carolina lie along a major migration corridor for marine species, and most shark species occurring along the U.S. East Coast will enter the state’s waters at some point during the year.
“Though attacks are extremely rare, many of the species on the ocean side of the barrier islands are large and potentially dangerous to humans, so exercise caution when interacting with these species.”
Interactions with humans
While shark attacks are incredibly rare, people still need to exercise caution when entering their world. According to National Geographic, “Over 17,000 people die from falls each year. That’s a 1 in 218 chance over your lifetime, compared to a 1 in 3,700,000 chance of being killed by a shark.”
— OCEARCH (@OCEARCH) July 18, 2017
“When we enter the water, we are going into the sharks world, they’re there all the time,” Nalepa said.
She has a few simple tips for avoiding an unpleasant interaction with these apex predators.
- Stay aware, be cautious. Know that you’re in their world.
- Stay in groups, don’t wander too far from shore.
- Don’t swim at dawn and dusk, sharks are most active at those times, and also have a sensory advantage over humans.
- If you have a cut, get out of the water.
- Watch for bait fish, sharks follow their food. If you see birds diving, and fish splashing, stay away to avoid a predator prey scenario.
With over 400 species of sharks in the world, people need to understand just how mysterious and important they are to the environment.
Nalepa said that while people get excited for sharks around shark week, they need to be recognized year round. Despite the fear that movies like “Jaws” can instill, these animals have a lot more to lose than we do.
“Really, these sharks have more to fear from humans, than we do from shark encounters,” she said.
Are you shark-obsessed? You can enter to win the chance to watch OCEARCH tag a shark in person and name the animal in its “Win a Shark” competition.