A group on a Florida fishing tour off the cost of Fort Lauderdale came across a 13-foot great white shark on New Year’s Day.
"Looking at that big black eye looking back at you, it kind of freaks you out."
That's how Capt. Bobby Diaz, mate aboard the Fort Lauderdale-based charter fishing boat Out of the Blue, described the experience of being merely inches away from the business end of a 13-foot-long great white shark.
It reminds movie fans of the line uttered by Jaws shark hunter Capt. Quint: "Sometimes that shark he looks right into ya. Right into your eyes. And, you know, the thing about a shark... he's got lifeless eyes. Black eyes. Like a doll's eyes."
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New Year's Day, a combined charter of six visitors to Florida, including New Yorker Glenn Engel and friends, stepped aboard the boat led by Capt. Paul Paolucci. Charter fleet operator Fishing Headquarters in Fort Lauderdale arranged the trip.
After several hours of slow fishing, Diaz deployed a live 8-pound blackfin tuna on a downrigger in about 350 feet of water.
The technique worked, and within a few minutes, line began peeling from the large 130-pound test conventional reel. It was Engel's turn in the fighting chair, so he began cranking on the reel. A few seconds later, Paolucci had a good idea what was on the line.
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"It ate the bait on the bottom, but then came up and breached, kind of, on the surface," Paolucci explained. "I could see the dorsal fin and I told Bobby it was probably a great white shark."
Paolucci caught one back in 2013. In his 16 years of skippering charter boats off South Florida, he has caught about 50 thresher sharks, 100 tiger sharks and 150 hammerheads and bull sharks, plus "millions of others," like Atlantic sharpnose, lemon, dusky, nurse, blacktip and spinner, among them.
"Bobby said when the shark breached, he thought it was two sharks," Paolucci said. "I told him, that's because this shark was so big, there was 8 feet between the dorsal and the tail fin."
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Paolucci said the battle took about an hour to get the shark boatside. Diaz said he has never seen anything like it.
"It was amazing," Diaz said. "The shark wore everybody out. Everybody had to take turns and finally had to get out of the chair. We had 60 pounds of drag on it."
Paolucci said other anglers may experience great white shark bites while fishing, but probably get cut off unless they are "fishing heavy tackle."
SHARK PHOTOS: Great white shark caught on the Navarre fishing pier
Once the shark began to tire and was closer to the boat, Diaz hand-lined the leader. He said it was surreal being connected by a few feet of fishing line — just him and the giant shark — hand to fin, eye to eye.
"It's very intense pulling on an animal that big," said Diaz, who has been working as a mate and fishing professionally for the past 12 years.
Diaz and one of the anglers used a special tape measure used to measure large fish without removing them from the water. They determined the shark was 13 feet in length. It probably weighed between 800 and 1,000 pounds.
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They then placed a tag from Gray's Taxidermy in the shark. Paolucci said it was the only tag they had. Photos and video show the shark did not have an OCEARCH tag on it.
OCEARCH not only tags great white sharks throughout the North Atlantic Ocean, but scientists from all over the world conduct research aboard its vessel.
Over the past decade, scientists have learned much about the movements of great white sharks, said John Chisholm of the Massachusetts Shark Research Program.
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"We’ve known for decades that white sharks winter off of Florida, thanks to old photographs and catch records," Chisholm said via email to TCPalm. "But thanks to advances in technology such as better tags, and more importantly, more people recreating on the water with smartphones and GoPros at the ready, we’re getting more info than ever before."
"This evolution of citizen science helps us in our efforts to learn not only more about the overall ecology of white sharks in the Atlantic, but also the life history of individuals. From Canada to Florida, I’ve been able to identify untagged individuals from their natural markings thanks to photos and videos supplied by fishermen, divers and whale watchers."
Chisholm said last year's sighting of great white shark "Salty" by Stuart divers Tommy and Amber Allore in 60 feet of water off Jupiter is a perfect example.
More: Great white shark spotted in Jupiter
Paolucci and Diaz consider themselves lucky to be among those who have enjoyed an up close encounter with a large great white shark. Although Diaz admitted, he probably won't be swimming across the Gulf Stream anytime soon.
"For everyone on board, it was a once in a lifetime experience," Diaz said. "Really cool."
Anyone fishing or diving who encounters a great white shark is asked to report it, plus send photos and videos, to the Massachusetts Shark Research Program via email at MassSharks@gmail.com or by tagging these social media handles:
Facebook: MA Sharks
Ed Killer is TCPalm's outdoors writer. Friend him on Facebook at Ed Killer, follow him on Twitter @tcpalmekiller or email him at firstname.lastname@example.org.
This story originally published to tcpalm.com, and was shared to other Florida newspapers in the new Gannett Media network.