Great white shark was ‘in the surf break off Jacksonville Beach’

Location of  Mary Lee a Great White Shark

Location of Mary Lee a Great White Shark Brett McBride climbs into the shark lift with Mary Lee, a shark that has been tracked off the First Coast's shores the week of Jan. 8. The great white weighs in at 3,456 pounds is 16½ feet long. Brett McBride climbs into the shark lift with Mary Lee, a shark that has been tracked off the First Coast’s shores the week of Jan. 8. The great white weighs in at 3,456 pounds is 16½ feet long.


A Facebook star named Mary Lee — a giant great white shark whose wanderings are tracked by GPS — apparently made an extremely close and personal visit to Jacksonville Beach in the early hours of Tuesday morning.

Ocearch, a shark research group, made this posting on its Facebook page at about that time: “Jacksonville Beach, FL residents and beach users please read. Mary Lee is a 16 1/2 ft, 3,500lbs mature female white shark. Her most recent position is off 6th Ave S and 1st St. S in the surf break off Jacksonville Beach, FL.’”

That will get your attention.

Ocearch founding chairman Chris Fischer was going to bed in Park City, Utah, when an email alert showed him the location of Mary Lee. His group, a nonprofit dedicated to shark preservation, had caught and tagged the giant shark off Massachusetts in September. It had been moving steadily south since then, moving near shore and away, again and again.

Now it had moved really, really close to shore.

“It looked like it was practically in a parking lot in Jacksonville Beach,” he said.

So at 12:46 a.m., Fischer called Jacksonville Beach police — just to let them know. Sgt. Tommy Crumley, the agency’s public information officer, said police took the information seriously. An officer stopped by the lifeguard station in the middle of the night to alert lifeguards there, and police checked the beach to make sure nobody was swimming.

On a cold winter’s night, no one was.

Even so, on Thursday morning, the department sent out a news release saying, “Due to the size of the shark and the potential dangers we are recommending at this time that people stay out of the water until the shark leaves our area.”

The meanderings of Mary Lee have made the shark something of an internet sensation on Ocearch’s Facebook page, which Tuesday afternoon had more than 26,000 “likes” — more than 1,000 over what it had that morning.

A few hours after its first Facebook notice about Mary Lee in the Jacksonville Beach surf, Ocearch posted some slightly more reassuring news: “Mary Lee moves slightly N and a little more offshore. She is off Neptune Beach FL near Jacksonville.”

Later Tuesday morning came more good news: “As of 7:49am EST Mary Lee has moved east, away from the beach.”

And on that path? It takes her closer to another great white named Genie, who’s hanging around farther off the coast of Jacksonville. When an Ocearch vessel captured and tagged Genie, it was 14 feet, 8 inches long and weighed 2,292 pounds, a puny thing compared to Mary Lee.

Ocearch’s website has a “Global Shark Tracker system” page where people can find tagged sharks around the world. Fischer said he hopes that helps scientist research and protect the endangered animals.

He also wants to raise public awareness, while letting people in on what he called a “400 million-year-old mystery” — the location of the ocean’s top predators.

“I’m hoping for less fear and more enlightenment,” he said. “Mary Lee and other great white sharks like this have been making this migration for hundreds of millions of years. These sharks have been swimming up and down your beaches for a long time, and now we know where they are. People are excited to know that Mary Lee is in the neighborhood, doing her great white shark thing.”

Rob Emahiser, a lieutenant in the Jacksonville Beach Ocean Rescue corps, said lifeguards had not barred swimmers and surfers from the water, since Mary Lee had tracked offshore by early Thursday.

“There’s not enough reason to create hysteria and close the water for a shark that’s offshore,” he said.

Lifeguards will keep an eye out on the website with Mary Lee’s wanderings, Emahiser said. But the information is of limited use, he notes: “We’ll use it. But it really is only useful for the sharks that are tagged.”

George Burgess, a shark expert at the University of Florida, said there’s no doubt Mary Lee has “many colleagues” who remain untagged — though no one knows how many.

He is skeptical of the accuracy of GPS locating, saying readings can be off by a considerable distance. But it’s well known that great whites migrate south in the winter, congregating in the cool — but not cold — water that they like, off the Georgia and North Florida Coast. They’re most likely following right whales, a favored food, he said.

They’re not so interested, however, in humans, said Burgess, who’s director of the International Shark Attack File at the Florida Museum of Natural History. He said there has not been a single documented instance in Florida’s recorded history of a great white attacking a human being.

Still, reports of a 3,500-pound shark in the surf will no doubt make many a little more nervous .

Robbie Wannenburg, 21, of Atlantic Beach went surfing at the Jacksonville Beach pier from 7:30 to 10 a.m. Tuesday. Only later did he learn of Mary Lee’s visit to the area.

“I guess I feel pretty lucky, considering it didn’t eat me,” he said. “I was looking at the tracking map later and, well, it’s 12 miles off shore, I might go surfing again.”

That did not happen.

“But my mom said no,” Wannenburg said. “I guess it is pretty scary, right?”