On Friday, June 20, a 14-foot, 2,300-pound shark passed about 60 miles south of St. George Island headed west. Experts say she may be headed for Texas.
Katharine, a white shark (Latin name: carcharodon carcharias) has taken on celebrity status along with dozens of other sharks tagged with electronic tracking devices. The lovely Katharine, Kat for short, now has star status due to her unusual migratory meanderings.
Chris Fischer is founder and expedition leader for OCEARCH, an acronym combing Ocean and Research, a non-profit organization with a global reach for research on great white sharks and other large apex predators. He said Katharine has become particularly popular among about 50 sharks being tracked because she often swims close to shore.
"I think what makes her special is she swam right down the east coast of Florida, right through Miami, right around Key West and then showed us for the first time in history how the white shark gets up into the Gulf of Mexico," Fischer said in an interview with Computerworld. "When she swims through these populated areas ... more and more people feel included and join in the movement."
Though sharks like Katharine typically cruise up and down the eastern seaboard, she is currently crossing the Gulf of Mexico. Experts from OCEARCH believe she may be heading past the Mississippi River for the Texas coastline.
Originally tagged by OCEARCH researchers off Cape Cod last August, she was named after Katharine Lee Bates, a Cape Cod native and writer of the patriotic song "America the Beautiful."
A dorsal fin tag attached by OCEARCH uses a satellite to track a Katharine’s position each time she breaks the surface. Other tags include an RFID implant whose ping is picked up whenever the shark passes a special, underwater buoy; an accelerometer, similar to the technology used in an iPhone or Nintendo Wii, that detects up or down movement; and a Pop-off Satellite Archive Tag (PSAT), which acts as a general archive, recording average water depth, temperature and light levels.
OCEARCH is a nonprofit, global shark-tracking project that uses four tagging technologies to create a three-dimensional image of a shark's activities. Researchers hope to develop successful conservation and management strategies by studying shark habits in detail.
Katharine has become a social media sensation.
Tens of thousands of people have visited the OCEARCH website in recent weeks, and its Facebook page has received as many as five million visits a week and many of those visitors are looking for information about Katharine. On several occasions, she has crashed the servers at OCREACH.
Why so much interest? In addition to her shoreline hugging habits, she may be pregnant.
According to researchers, male white sharks and non-pregnant females typically return to breeding grounds every year, while pregnant females return every two years because of an 18-month gestation period.
Cape Cod is a white shark breeding ground, and typically, this time of year the fish begin voyaging back to that area, but not Katharine. Observers speculate this is because she’s not trying to breed this year, which could mean she is already expecting.
Katharine is also very interesting because this is the first time a white shark has been tracked entering the Gulf. Up until now, researchers were uncertain of where the white sharks occasionally seen in the Gulf of Mexico came from.
Well, Katharine came from New England. She traveled straight down the East Coast, past Miami and Key West und up the western side of the peninsula remaining within 200 miles of the shore the whole way and often venturing much closer.
Should you stay out of the water knowing Katharine may be lurking there? Actually, Katharine is far more likely to be injured by humans than to injure one.
Fischer said that 50 percent of the sharks tagged have been commercially caught and killed over the last year.
”This does help one understand the mind-blowing statistic that up to 100 million sharks per year are caught and killed, some just finned for a bowl of soup,” he said. “A research project that was started to advance science for conservation purposes has become a wakeup call for the global community to grasp the significant mortality rate of shark populations.”
Over 50 researchers from more than 20 institutions have collaborated with OCEARCH to date with over three dozen research papers in process or completed.
According to its website, OCEARCH expeditions, through the support of Caterpillar and other partners such as Costa, Yeti, Yamaha, Contender, SAFE boats and Mustad, generate satellite tracks and other forms of data for sharks, with planned expansion to other species in the future. Seventeen research expeditions have been conducted to date, with seven more scheduled through the end of 2015.