Research team tags sharks off South Carolina coast for first time

Research team tags sharks off South Carolina coast for first time

HILTON HEAD, SC (WMBF) - For the first time ever, OCEARCH, a non-profit organization that catches and studies great white sharks, worked along the coast of South Carolina.

"We kind of feel like we're sitting on a game trail," said 'Lowcountry Expedition' leader Chris Fischer. "We're trying to be here when animals are moving north."

It's a creature so feared, it's loved.  The movie "Jaws" helped to instill that fear into beachgoers throughout the years, but also fascination.

Fischer, though, described great whites as the "lions of the ocean," and researchers are starting to understand them more and more.

"These things have got special powers. They can sense stuff that we can't," said College of Charleston Professor Gavin Naylor.

He was aboard the OCEARCH research vessel this month, hoping to get his hands on a great white shark.

"If you have to sample one animal that gives you a fairly good health indicator of everything underneath it, you would choose an apex predator like that," Naylor said.

Sharks are at the top of the food chain in the ocean, and a recent study suggests the number of them in southeast coastal waters is increasing.

Experts think the same goes for the white shark. However, despite their growing population, these fish take some serious time to catch.

A WMBF News crew spent two days on the boat, starting in the Port Royal Sound just a couple miles off the coast of Hilton Head Island.

The crew eventually ended up just 10 miles off the South Carolina shores. That's where they got the first bite.

It wasn't great or white, but it was a shark.

A 5-foot tiger shark was snagged, and researchers gathered the same kind of data from the little guy as they would have from the big ones.

The scientists have to work quickly, as they only have 15 minutes to get blood, skin and parasite samples. They tagged the shark with a tracking device and then gave him a name.

"We're going to name this guy Beaufort, after the great people of Beaufort, S.C.," Fischer said.

The samples taken from Beaufort will turn into hours of research back in the labs. The OCEARCH vessel gives scientists a unique opportunity to study the animals out of the water by using a lift and platform.

"This is a data-creating machine, and our biggest challenge for the ocean is data deficit and time," Fischer said. "We are doing everything we can with the assets and capacities to do that."

While WMBF's voyage wasn't so lucky, it was during the week before when OCEARCH caught and tagged two great white sharks, now named Hilton and Savannah, and a bigger tiger shark named Weimar.

"The most surprising thing for me is to be capturing and tagging white sharks and tiger sharks on the same trip," Fischer said. "We've never had that happen anywhere before. We should be terrified of an ocean that's not full of giant sharks, not terrified of giant sharks."

Fisher said OCEARCH came to the South Carolina coast because of the tags they put on the sharks they catch.

Researchers noticed that the mature white shark females they had tagged in the northeast were moving through South Carolina's warmer waters in the months of March and April.

Copyright 2017 WMBF News. All rights reserved.