Florida Keys News
Wednesday, July 23, 2014
Are great white sharks moving in?

KEY LARGO -- With the recent sightings of great white sharks, many locals are wondering if the killer fish is making a home of South Florida waters.

Experts aren't sure yet, though they acknowledge an increase in local sightings during the past few years.

A group of researchers, dubbed OCEARCH, tagged a 12-foot great white shark, named Katharine, in August 2013 off Cape Cod as part of a study into the migratory patterns of sharks.

The predator slowly made her way down the Atlantic Seaboard, passing just off Elliott Key before skirting along the Florida Keys. Katharine then made her way out in the Gulf of Mexico just off Sarasota. Researchers only know where a tagged shark is when it surfaces, as it creates what is known as "a ping" when its tag is read by a satellite.

Katharine didn't surface from Sarasota until she returned to a few miles off Key Largo late last week.

Neil Hammerschlag, a shark researcher with the University of Miami, said great white sharks often follow mirgrating prey fish, like amberjack.

"They usually like to follow large schools of fish," he said.

The most likely time of year to see a great white shark is the spring, Hammerschlag noted. The researcher has tagged many sharks throughout the world, including great white sharks in the Florida Keys.

As for why more sightings are being noted this year and last year, Hammerschlag says it is too early to tell. It could be nothing more than anomaly.

"Climate change could also be the reason they are being noticed in southern waters," he added.

Hammerschlag credits OCEARCH with bringing public awareness to great white sharks and getting more people interested in the creature.

"They're making sharks celebrities and creating some fans," he said.

Earlier this month, Steve Leopold, who charters a fishing boat out of Holiday Isle, came across a great white shark about 20 miles offshore from Islamorada. A video shot of Leopold throwing a line of bait out to attract the shark, which circled the boat, spread across Facebook.

It was only the second time the long-time fishing captain had come across a great white in local waters -- the last being nearly 20 years ago.

Leopold said he was fishing in 1,000 feet of water and was surprised that a school of mahi didn't seem to be fazed by the shark's presence.

"It was a very unusual experience," said Leopold, noting the excitement of the tourists aboard his boat.

Hammerschlag said there is nothing wrong with attracting a great white shark near the boat to catch a glimpse.

"It's a great way to get to a better look at such a great animal," he said.

The scientist, though, warned against trying to hook the shark, and Leopold said he had no intention of engaging a great white in a long battle.

"We would have been out there for hours," the fisherman said.

Finding great whites seems to be a family affair for the Leopolds. Last year, his teenage daughter tagged a great white shark off Islamorada as part of an education outreach opportunity with Florida International University and Coral Shores High School.

Those interested in following Katharine's travels may visit www.ocearch.org/profile/katharine.

jgore@keysnews.com

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