Shark-Tagging Expedition Heads to Lowcountry

Shark-Tagging Expedition Heads to Lowcountry

SCDNR staff tagged this mature female tiger shark in November 2015 using a satellite tag provided by OCEARCH. (Photo: Ashley Shaw/SCDNR)

SCDNR staff tagged this mature female tiger shark in November 2015 using a satellite tag provided by OCEARCH. (Photo: Ashley Shaw/SCDNR)

Like birds that fly south, many sharks migrate to warmer waters for the winter – and in South Carolina, animal tracking data have shown those winter visitors often include white sharks.

Now, shark-tagging nonprofit OCEARCH is heading to South Carolina and its neighboring states to learn more about these important ocean predators, also known as great white sharks. "Expedition Lowcountry" will last three weeks, during which time a multi-institutional team of scientists aboard the R/V OCEARCH hopes to tag, sample, and release mature white sharks.

S.C. Department of Natural Resources (SCDNR) marine biologist Bryan Frazier will serve as chief scientist on the expedition, helping coordinate the dozen-plus research projects the expedition’s samples will benefit, including studies of white shark vision, reproduction, movement, and parasites.

SCDNR biologist Bryan Frazier releasing a bull shark tagged during a research survey in 2013. (Photo: Ashley Shaw)

SCDNR biologist Bryan Frazier releasing a bull shark tagged during a research survey in 2013. (Photo: Ashley Shaw)

“Due to relatively rare nature of these sharks and the difficulty associated with capturing and getting samples, we hope to maximize the amount of research possible for each animal,” said Frazier. “We have always known white sharks occurred off of South Carolina during winter months, but tracking sharks like the Lowcountry favorite “Mary Lee” has changed the way we perceive white sharks, with tracking data suggesting they may prefer coastal waters to open ocean. With each additional shark we tag we gain tremendous insight into their movement patterns.”

Frazier will be joined by nine other researchers representing eight institutions, including Mote Marine Laboratory, Woods Hole Oceanographic Institute, and the University of North Florida. College of Charleston professor Gavin Naylor and University of South Carolina-Beaufort associate professor Kim Ritchie are also members of the science team who will use samples collected on the expedition in their respective research on white shark genetics and antibiotic-producing bacteria found on sharks.

SCDNR does not have an active white shark tagging program, but animals tagged by other researchers are frequently documented in South Carolina waters. In recent years, 36 individual tagged white sharks have been detected by SCDNR acoustic arrays, an extensive system of underwater receivers that record “pings” when tagged marine animals swim by.

Capt. Chip Michalove, a charter captain from Hilton Head working with researchers from the Massachusetts’s Division of Marine Fisheries, has captured and tagged multiple white sharks off of Hilton Head Island this year, lending support to the idea that South Carolina waters are an important wintering grounds for the species.

OCEARCH facilitates collaboration between shark scientists by providing researchers access to mature sharks, samples, and open-sourced movement data from tags on the released animals.

This marks the group’s first expedition in South Carolina. In previous years, OCEARCH has conducted tagging trips in North Carolina, Florida, and New England, among other locations. Frazier participated in the group’s Jacksonville expedition in March 2016, when the team tagged several tiger sharks that have since been detected in South Carolina waters.

SCDNR biologist Bryan Frazier (left) assists with the tagging/sampling procedure for a male tiger shark on OCEARCH's 2016 expedition in Jacksonville, FL. (Photo: OCEARCH/R. Snow)

SCDNR biologist Bryan Frazier (left) assists with the tagging/sampling procedure for a male tiger shark on OCEARCH's 2016 expedition in Jacksonville, FL. (Photo: OCEARCH/R. Snow)

Keep Up with Expedition Lowcountry

Follow @SCDNR and @OCEARCH on social media for updates throughout the expedition, including live briefings aboard the R/V OCEARCH. Join the conversation with hashtag #ExpeditionLowcountry.

Track the sharks tagged on this trip in real time on the OCEARCH global Shark Tracker, available free online and for download on Apple and Android platforms. 

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