Friday, December 9, 2022

Great white, shark sightings usher in early Shark Week on Southside

Hilton, a 12-foot-long great white shark, was first tagged by OCEARCH on March 3, 2017. He was tracked swimming near the Virginia Beach coastline on July 18, 2017. (Courtesy of OCEARCH)

VIRGINIA BEACH — Shark Week came a few days early in Virginia Beach when a 12-foot-long great white shark was tracked about 20 miles off of the Oceanfront.

It was just after 6 p.m. Tuesday when Hilton the great white shark first pinged off of the Virginia Beach coast.

But he didn’t stick around long.

Hilton pinged again in the Virginia Beach area around 7 a.m. on Wednesday before swimming further north to the Eastern Shore.

Hilton is just one of several sharks being tracked by research group OCEARCH.

OCEARCH specializes in tracking and studying marine animals, especially great white and tiger sharks.

The group uses a boat, named the M/V OCEARCH, to lift sharks out of the water so they can be studied. The “at-sea laboratory” is capable of holding up to 75,000 pounds, and allows researchers to perform 12 studies on the animals in 15 minutes before releasing them back to the wild, according to the OCEARCH website.

This map shows the path taken by Hilton the great white shark since he was first tagged by OCEARCH in March 2017. (Courtesy OCEARCH)

After OCEARCH discovers a shark, it gets a name, a Twitter account, the #DontFearTheFin hashtag and becomes part of the OCEARCH family. The organization is able to track the sharks in real time and uses the data to learn more about their patterns and behaviors.

When a shark pings, it means that their fin has broken the surface of the water and sent a signal to a satellite.

“What’s interesting is that we’re just now beginning to get a fuller picture of what these animals do, where they go and why,” Virginia Aquarium spokesman Matthew Klepeisz wrote in an email.

“The research being done by OCEARCH and their tracking team, especially in the Expedition Mid-Atlantic, is providing an incredible amount of detail on sharks,” he continued.

Expedition Mid-Atlantic is OCEARCH’s current project, in which scientists will travel to Virginia, Maryland, Delaware and New Jersey to study and track great white, tiger, blue and shortfin mako sharks, according to the organization’s website.

A shark on a mission

OCEARCH first discovered Hilton on March 3 in Hilton Head, S.C.

At a full-grown 1,300 pounds, Hilton isn’t the largest great white shark to swim near the Virginia coastline.

A 14-foot-long, 2,300-pound great white shark named Katherine has been known to swim around Virginia Beach, and scientists say she hasn’t fully matured yet. She last pinged near the Eastern Shore on June 25.

Since he was first tagged by OCEARCH, Hilton has traveled 3,233 miles up and down the southern east coast, venturing as far north as the Eastern Shore. His July swim is the closest he’s been to the Virginia Beach coastline since March.

But OCEARCH Founder and expedition leader Chris Fischer believes Hilton will likely continue moving north with a purpose: to mate.

While it’s not uncommon for great white sharks to pass through or feed in the Virginia Beach area, Hampton Roads isn’t a known mating site for the species.

According to an Instagram post authored by Fisher, Hilton may be moving toward Cape Cod or Sable Island, Canada, to mate in late summer or early fall. If he’s successful, his babies could be born in the Long Island area in May or June.

Great whites less common than smaller species

Although great white sharks do swim through Virginia Beach’s water, Virginia Aquarium Senior Aquarist Julie Levans said smaller species are more common in Tidewater.

Those include sandbar, dusky, sand tiger, Atlantic sharpnose and smooth-hound sharks.

And even though those sharks may call Tidewater home longer than great white sharks, they generally tend to hang out offshore as well. Most of the area’s sharks stick to the Gulf Stream where warmer waters attract schools of fish.

The Gulf Stream is about 20 miles off shore from the Oceanfront, located further than it is to other beaches in North Carolina, South Carolina and Florida, Levans said.

“If you actually see a shark you should consider yourself pretty lucky,” she said. “It’s one of those kind of one-in-a-million chances that you would actually see an animal like that close to shore.”

Shark sightings aren’t very common in the Chesapeake Bay, either. Generally, beachgoers will spot one or two sharks a year; however, Norfolk beaches had to close down five times in June due to shark sightings, said Daniel Jones, the division head of aquatics and recreational water activities in Norfolk.

Although Jones isn’t sure what type of sharks were swimming the Bay he said they were probably sand sharks. He’s also seen more aggressive species in the Bay, like bull and tiger sharks.

The combination of the Gulf Stream being located several miles offshore, and the fact that sharks don’t prey on humans, makes Hampton Roads a safe place for swimmers who don’t want to make a finned friend.

Five shark attacks in 180 years

Since 1837, there have only been five confirmed shark attacks in Virginia, Klepeisz said. Among those was one death when a shark attacked and killed a 10-year-old surfer in Sandbridge in 2001.

And five shark attacks in 180 years in Virginia are just tiny drops in the bucket of an average of 19 sharks attacks each year in the United States, according to National Geographic.

“Quite frankly, there are 491,000 more home DIY injuries than shark attacks annually,” Klepeisz said.

And with humans killing about 200 million sharks every year, Levans says the predators have a lot more to be afraid of than people do.

“I think that the sharks should fear us more than we should fear them,” she said.

Still, swimmers should be careful and aware that they are in a shark’s habitat when they are in the area’s waters. They should also be aware of other dangers the water holds, including riptides and jelly fish.

To swim safely, Klepeisz suggests swimmers follow a set of rules — including swimming in groups — when lifeguards are present and close to shore. He also suggests swimmers avoid water at dawn and dusk when most marine animals are feeding.

If a swimmer does encounter a shark in the wild, they are encouraged to calmly swim to shore so as not to agitate the animal.

“The likelihood of getting attacked by a shark anywhere is pretty low,” Levans said. “Sharks really aren’t out to get people. We aren’t on their menu.”

Are you shark-obsessed? You can enter to win the chance to watch OCEARCH tag a shark in person and name the animal in their “Win a Shark” competition. 

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