June 19--The great white sharks of Ocearch are back in the news -- and crashing the website that lets the public track the path of the creatures.
Lydia, tagged within easy eyesight of Jacksonville's Hanna Park last year, is off the Georgia coast again. It's back in the neighborhood after a historic trip into the eastern Atlantic that made for alarming headlines in Europe.
Meanwhile, Katharine has been followed down the East Coast and into the warm Gulf of Mexico: When last heard from, it was just off Panama City, and news reports are pondering the next stop.
New Orleans? Perhaps even Texas?
Good luck trying to follow Katharine's movements though: The shark's popularity caused such an increase to Ocearch.org that the tracking site has crashed repeatedly.
Ocearch, a nonprofit shark research group, caught those sharks and tagged them with a tracker that pings whenever they reach the surface. Through social media and news reports, the sharks have become something like celebrities, their every sighting the object of great speculation.
The work has some tangible scientific benefits as well, said University of North Florida shark expert Jim Gelsleichter, who has collaborated with Ocearch.
"It's rewriting the story," he said. "We're definitely at a time where we've seen major advances in our ability to do this work."
For one thing, it shows that the movement of great whites is far more complex than the old belief that they moved north for the summer, south for the winter.
It also shows, he said, that the sharks hug the coast -- just a few miles offshore -- more than once thought, while making dashes toward inlets along the way.
UNF's Shark Biology Program, which Gelsleichter directs, could also be making some news: Its researchers will soon be heading offshore to retrieve data from a series of sensors placed just off the Northeast Florida coast.
The sensors tie in with a network of such devices to the north and south, giving a more complete picture of the travel patterns and life cycles of sharks.
The devices can't transmit in real time; instead they store the info, which is downloaded later. They should be able to pick up the distinct signals of the Ocearch sharks, as well as those of about 20 others tagged by harpooners off Cape Cod.
This winter, Katharine -- 14 feet and 2,300 pounds -- hung around for weeks just off the northeast and central Florida coast. Eventually it made its way to the southern tip of Florida and then into the gulf.
Katharine surfaces frequently, sometimes several times a day, so it has become a real superstar.
Now the Times-Picayune newspaper in New Orleans is wondering if the shark is headed there, while CNN's headline proclaims that "One-ton shark headed to Texas coast."
That story is made even better by the presence of another great white named Betsy, which early in June popped up suddenly in the Gulf, some 140 miles off Sarasota.
Katharine, Betsy and Ocearch's original celebrity shark, Mary Lee, were all tagged off Cape Cod by Ocearch.
A resurgence in the seal population there has caused hungry great whites to congregate, making it more feasible for researchers to catch and tag sharks.
Mary Lee, a 3,600-pound behemoth, caused a real stir when it pinged inside the surf zone at Jacksonville Beach in January 2013.
That led to Ocearch's Expedition Jacksonville, which paid off when the crew captured and tagged Lydia. The shark was just off the popular surfing spot known as the Poles, inside the south jetty of the St. Johns River.
Lydia is an accomplished traveler: At the end of April, Ocearch said it had covered more than 23,000 miles since it was caught off Jacksonville in March 2013.
It was the first great white confirmed to have traveled from the western to eastern Atlantic, coming at one point less than 900 miles from Ireland.
That led to some hyperbolic speculation in the British press. As the Daily Star noted: "It is feared the hungry creature will have easy pickings as a spring heatwave sends thousands of Brits flocking to the coast."
Gelsleichter was interviewed numerous times by an international press eager to claim the story -- and the shark.
"Even when she was halfway around the world, I was quoted, saying 'She's our shark.' The U.K. people said, 'No, she's ours.' "
Gelsleichter is sticking to his guns though. "I'm still calling her Jacksonville's shark, though obviously she's pretty much visited just about every state on the East Coast of the U.S., and of course took that jug-handle turn toward the U.K."
Matt Soergel: (904) 359-4082
(c)2014 The Florida Times-Union (Jacksonville, Fla.)
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Original headline: Great white sharks are off the coast, in the news, and crashing websites
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