Great white shark becomes Twitter star
They're going to need a bigger Twitter.
An organization studying great white sharks is enjoying some welcome attention. One of the creatures they've been monitoring has started gaining a loyal social media following. @MaryLeeShark is the fake Twitter handle for a very real, nearly 3,500-pound great white. The shark's movements can be tracked online and in real time.
She's drawn over 44,000 followers. She provides playful updates and witty replies. All as the real life shark cruises up and down the East Coast.
"Oh heyyyyy.... you're right by my house, come by for a nightcap?" invited one Twitter commenter. The shark had just popped up off the coast of Long Island, New York.
"I would settle for an ice bag to put on my aching Twitter fin. -:()," Mary Lee replied.
"What do you do during Shark Week?" another commenter asked. "Swim. Eat. Tweet. Etc. Exhausting. -;()," Mary Lee responded.
The shark was tagged off the coast of Cape Cod. It is among hundreds of sharks that OCEARCH has tagged and tracked since 2007. OCEARCH is a Utah-based organization.
The fake Twitter handle isn't affiliated with OCEARCH (pronounced Oh-Search). But OCEARCH expedition leader Chris Fischer says the organization appreciates the attention the maritime missives have generated. He named Mary Lee after his mother.
"They're really clever. They really like sharks and they're on a mission. So we're just kind of rolling with it," he said. He was in Australia on the organization's latest expedition.
OCEARCH has even jumped on the bandwagon. It launched "official" Twitter handles for two other sharks. They are being monitored off the East Coast. @Shark_Katharine and @RockStarLydia both have sizable followings of their own.
The person behind the @MaryLeeShark account did surface when The Associated Press sent a Twitter message.
The account's operator identified themselves only as a daily newspaper reporter living on the East Coast. The account operator expressed pleasant surprise at the attention and OCEARCH's support.
"The recent explosion of followers has been a lot of fun, but also like a second job. I do everything manually - no robo tweets," the account owner wrote. "The best part is that (@MaryLeeShark) plays a role in helping to replace fear with facts by retweeting and commenting on @OCEARCH tweets. I (try) to be respectful of the important work OCEARCH does and have fun at the same time."
OCEARCH's multi-year project uses GPS trackers. They are affixed to the shark's dorsal fin. The trackers post real time data on dozens of great whites across the globe. Mary Lee was hanging out near Ocean City, Maryland on May 17, for example. The goal is to better understand the shark's life cycle. And to encourage conservation of the endangered ocean predators.
Shark researchers say the work is important. They say there's still a lot unknown about the behavior of mature white sharks. The massive beasts are extremely difficult to tag with modern GPS trackers.
OCEARCH is one of the few outfits with the technology, skill and resources for the job. The organization operates largely on corporate funding. Its crew consists of professional fisherman-turned-ocean explorers.
"This gives us a much better understanding of the movement patterns of these animals through days, months and years," says Robert Hueter. He is director of the Center for Shark Research. It is located at Mote Marine Laboratory and Aquarium in Sarasota, Florida.
Gregory Skomal is a marine biologist who heads the Massachusetts Shark Research Program. He says the research is of particular interest along the densely populated East Coast. That's where great whites are being spotted with greater frequency.
The sharks are increasingly drawn to places like Cape Cod and its surrounding islands. The seaside communities are forever linked with the movie "Jaws. The increase in sharks is because seal populations have soared.
"Basically the cafe is open and the customers are arriving," Skomal said. "Ten or fifteen years ago, you might have had three to four sightings of white sharks off the coast of Massachusetts a year. Now we're getting well over 30 or 40."
The researchers are reluctant to draw quick conclusions about great white behavior based on the few East Coast great whites OCEARCH is tracking.
Some, like Mary Lee, have stayed relatively close to the shore. That's to the delight and alarm of Twitter followers. Others have ventured far into the Atlantic.
Shark fans say they've found the tongue-in-cheek tweets fun and informative. Many hope the attention helps overcome fears and misconceptions about the powerful but endangered creatures.
"People need to think about them not so much as a predator and something to be feared, but more as something that needs to be protected," said Teri Drake-Floyd. She is an Athens, Georgia resident. She recently started following @MaryLeeShark. "The ocean is their home, not ours. And so it's kind of our responsibility to look out for them."
Critical thinking challenge: Why is it important to replace fears about sharks with facts?