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Great white shark surfaces off Sanibel coast

By Staff | May 7, 2014

Betsy, a great white shark, was satellite tagged near Cape Cod in August 2013 and was tracked on April 25. In this photo, Chris Fischer, expedition leader for Ocearch, names Betsy after the 2013 tagging. PHOTO PROVIDED

Betsy, the great white shark, traveled all the way from Cape Cod to Southwest Florida waters before surfacing long enough on April 25 for researchers to pinpoint her exact location via satellite.

After not being able to track her for months, a research team led by Ocearch – including Mote Marine Laboratory in Sarasota, Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution, and the Massachusetts Division of Marine Fisheries – received a ping from the tag affixed to Betsy’s dorsal fin.

She had been outfitted with a motion sensor and a satellite transmitter last August to monitor her movements and position, anywhere in the world.

The team confirmed that Betsy – the 12-foot, 1,400-pound great white shark – was approximately 100 kilometers or 60 miles from Boca Grande and that she was the first great white from an Ocearch-led expedition to be tracked into the Gulf of Mexico.

“She had been really quiet – so it’s pretty exciting that we’re hearing from her satellite tag at all, let alone right around here,” said Dr. Nick Whitney from Mote Marine Laboratory, one of the researchers who tagged Betsy in Cape Cod.

Last year, the team of researchers had lifted Betsy out of the water using a special platform aboard their ship, the M/V Ocearch, and they were excited to see how far she had traveled. Another of their great whites, named Lydia, managed to cross the mid-Atlantic ridge before pinging.

Dr. Bob Hueter from Mote Marine Laboratory said tagged sharks need to surface for a few seconds for clear satellite transmissions. Betsy later sent some weaker pings after April 25 but none of them were strong enough to determine her new location.

“We think she is still out there for sure,” said Hueter. “I hope she shows up before Sunday because I have to give a talk in Tampa.”

Great whites are commonly associated with the colder waters of the northeastern United States, yet Hueter said many of them do live in the Gulf. The major question is: what brought Betsy to the waters of Southwest Florida?

“It could be for feeding, reproduction, to find a suitable temperature to be in, all of those things are involved,” said Hueter. “For white sharks in the Gulf we have almost no information about. As far as we know, the reasons aren’t for reproduction and it’s most likely for feeding. I don’t think she came down here to give birth to pups.”

There has been a spike in the number of great white sightings in the Gulf, but residents and visitors of Sanibel Island won’t be seeing Betsy or any other great whites near the beach. They tend to congregate near the coast in the northern United States to prey on seals, but in the Gulf they consume larger fish in deeper waters.

“They typically aren’t very close to the beach,” said Hueter. “I have to say, this year in particular, we’ve had a definite uptick in sightings and some photographs.”

The increased sightings could be the result of more people having cameras on their cellphones or that the great white shark population is thriving, but the most likely explanation is that certain shark species are easily misidentified.

Ocearch, a non-profit, collaborates internationally with institutions that research great white sharks and other large apex predators. By monitoring the great whites they tag, Ocearch researchers can learn more about the species and determine the best way to craft collaborative conservation plans with other countries.

For more information on the great white shark, Ocearch, or to be able to monitor tagged sharks all over the world with the organization’s “Shark Tracker,” visit ocearch.org.