Watch as the research team OCEARCH captures, tags and releases the great white shark Katharine off Cape Cod in August 2013. OCEARCH video. Posted Jan. 18, 2014.
Lurking in the depths, Katharine the 2,300-pound great white shark prowled for prey the past week off the Space Coast — fascinating and alarming surfers and swimmers by making a Monday run toward Sebastian Inlet State Park.
Katharine has a red satellite transmitter attached to her dorsal fin. That’s the fin that popped above the waves and prompted the “duh-duh, duh-duh” theme song in “Jaws,” frightening moviegoers.
The celebrity predator has generated media coverage across the Sunshine State as satellite “pings” track her trek down the East Coast. She even boasts her own unofficial Twitter handle, @Shark_Katharine, and more than 1,650 followers.
“Definitely not a common inhabitant to our local environment,” said Jonathan Shenker, Florida Tech associate professor of biological sciences. “We’ve got a lot of toothy guys out there — but great whites aren’t one of them.
“I’m just sitting here fascinated about her movements and watching what she’ll do next. If she shows up off South Beach Miami, I’m sure you’ll see a lot more media attention if she starts cruising the beaches,” Shenker said.
Katharine was captured and tagged Aug. 19, 2013, off Cape Cod, Mass., by OCEARCH, a research organization that tracks transmitter-equipped sharks off the Atlantic Coast, Africa and South America.
An immature female, she measured 14 feet, 2 inches. She was named for Katharine Lee Bates, the Cape Cod songwriter who wrote “America The Beautiful,” and her transmitter emits a signal when her dorsal fin breaks the water’s surface.
Updates on Katharine’s satellite-tracker pings generated heavy FLORIDA TODAY online traffic this past week. Starting May 7 near St. Augustine, she passed New Smyrna Beach on Friday and approached Canaveral National Seashore by nightfall.
After cruising off the Cape this weekend, Katharine continued southward. Detected at 12:38 p.m. Sunday roughly 20 miles offshore from Cape Canaveral, she pinged again at 7:27 a.m. Monday, 20-plus miles offshore from Sebastian Inlet.
Then she struck for the inlet — pinging at 5:01 p.m. Monday about 4,000 feet offshore from Sebastian Inlet State Park.
From there, Katharine swam Tuesday to Port St. Lucie, her southernmost destination since she was tagged. Total distance traveled since that date: 3,686 miles.
Her latest “ping” at 12:18 p.m. Thursday shows her off the coast of Boynton Beach.
Though spinner, blacktip and bull sharks are more-familiar species along the Space Coast, Katharine’s appearance is not unusual, said George Burgess, director of the Florida Program for Shark Research at the University of Florida.
Between January and May, Burgess said the carnivores pursue North Atlantic right whales as they migrate off the coasts of northeast Florida and southern Georgia.
“Not coincidentally, white sharks will happily munch on a sick or slow whale — or even better, a calf. They’re along to move the Darwinian evolution forward,” he said.
Burgess suspects great white populations were larger off South Florida and in the Gulf of Mexico when they preyed on Caribbean monk seals. The last seal was sighted in 1952, according to the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission, and the species is now extinct.
Shenker pointed out there aren’t many endangered right whales remaining for great whites to “beat up on.” He speculated that the apex predators may feed on sea turtles off Brevard County.
According to OCEARCH, Katharine’s Twitter account, @Shark_Katharine, is maintained by a fan. Recent first-person tweets included a reference to the ridiculous SyFy movie “Sharknado,” self-depreciating jokes about her weight, and directives to #ReplaceFearWithFacts for those afraid of shark attacks.
“We’re not tweeting off that account, but we do love how she’s tweeting,” said OCEARCH via Twitter.
Despite their ferocious man-eating reputation, no confirmed great white attacks on humans have occurred in Florida waters. Sharks kill about five people a year worldwide, Burgess said.
“Shark populations around the world are in decline — and in many cases, precipitous decline. That’s because of overfishing and, in some cases, habitat loss,” Burgess said.
Beamer, a 9-foot, 200-pound male blue shark that was tagged last July off Long Island, N.Y., and tracked by OCEARCH, was caught and killed by a commercial fishing vessel last month off the coast of Costa Rica.
“Any management of these critters has to be done on an international level. No one country can save the sharks. Sharks don’t have to pull out passports to cross borders,” Burgess said.
“Any shark biologist will tell you the real story isn’t shark-bites-man. It’s man-bites-shark.”
Contact Neale at 321-242-3638, firstname.lastname@example.org or follow @RickNeale1