MOREHEAD CITY, N.C. — The researchers at OCEARCH know a lot about great white sharks. They know where they travel, they know where they give birth and they know where they eat. But there’s a major piece about great white shark’s lives they don’t know. Earlier this year, they traveled to the North Carolina coast to try to get the answer to that glaring question. Where do great white sharks mate?
“We’ve been working on trying to figure out this puzzle since 2012,” said Dr. Bob Hueter, an OCEARCH chief scientist.
Hueter says the North Carolina coast represents a gap in OCEARCH’s information base.
“We think that they may be actually mating in late winter, early spring, off the Carolina coast,” Hueter explained.
In March, Expedition Carolinas was launched. In the waters off Morehead City, the team battled the elements as they tried to catch and examine great whites.
“Very difficult time to work there. Very challenging conditions,” Hueter added. “The weather was brutal.”
In all, the team was only able to fish for about half of the expedition days.
“We huddle around these sharks that have been caught for us and brought to the lift by our expert fishing team,” Hueter said.
The OCEARCH ship is equipped with a hydraulic platform, which can lift 75,000 lbs. Once the fishing team leads the shark to the lift, the team can study them for about 15-20 minutes.
“Take measurements, take all kinds of samples, blood, exams like ultrasound,” Hueter detailed.
The team then attaches tracking tags so they can follow the sharks for up to 10 years.
“Figuring out where they’re mating is critical to protecting the species in those critical habitats,” Hueter said. “We think, based on the movements of the big females, that this is happening somewhere in the vicinity of the mid-Atlantic coast, probably out off the shelf, or right at the edge of the shelf.”
Hueter says the primary nursery area, where the sharks give birth, is off Long Island in an area known as the New York/New Jersey Bight.
“That’s the area where these big females give birth to a litter of about seven to 14 pups, each pup four to four-and-a-half feet long, weighing about 40 pounds,” Hueter said. “So imagine how big mom has to be.”
The team was able to catch two great white sharks during Expedition Carolinas. They included an 11-foot, 883 lb. shark named Freya, as well as an 8-foot, 338 lb. shark named Charlotte. The problem is, neither of them was of mating age, which is approximately 20 years old.
“Every single individual animal is like gold,” Hueter added.
With each shark OCEARCH catches, samples and releases, it serves 23 different projects, involving 42 scientists from nearly 30 institutions, Hueter said.
Without catching a great white of mating age, the team was unable to reach any real conclusions. For that reason, Hueter said they plan to return to the North Carolina coast around the same time in 2022.
He added both Charlotte and Freya both moved a little south after being released, spent a lot of time in the Carolina region and now are both in the Cape Cod area.
“Neither one of those are full-grown adults, they’re still growing, and they both have done very similar things,” Hueter detailed.
To follow Charlotte, Freya and any other sharks OCEARCH has tagged, visit OCEARCH.org.