Great White Sharks Would Like the Gulf of Mexico Back, Please


Like plenty of Texas spring breakers, LeeBeth opted for a trip to the beaches of South Padre Island in recent weeks. But while the sun, the sand, and the promise of a fat margarita might have drawn others, LeeBeth was driven by something else entirely: an ancient animal instinct still scarcely understood by scientists. 

LeeBeth is a shark—of the great and white variety—whose more than two-thousand-mile trip to the Gulf of Mexico earned her the spotlight this month, in part because of the sheer length of her journey, but also because a great white shark had never been tracked that far west. Megan Winton, a research scientist with the Atlantic White Shark Conservancy, says that when it comes to tracking sharks, LeeBeth, who clocks in at fourteen feet long and weighs well over two thousand pounds, is sort of the ultimate catch. And Winton would know—she was on the boat as part of the team that caught and outfitted LeeBeth with several types of tags in December of last year.

The tracking devices only ping researchers with a shark’s location when the fish’s dorsal fin breaks the surface for at least 45 seconds. Often a tagged shark will go weeks or months without sending a record of its locale. But LeeBeth seems to like things up top and has broken the water’s surface more frequently than other tracked sharks, providing scientists with an unusually clear map of her travels and invaluable insight into her kind’s migratory patterns. Winton also says LeeBeth is a crucial piece of the white shark research puzzle because she is a large, mature female, of which researchers have tagged relatively few in the North Atlantic Ocean. 

“It’s in part because it takes them a long time to get that big,” Winton said. “The ocean’s a tough place to make a living. It’s really exciting from that perspective.” 

LeeBeth’s path this month made shark-science history, in that no other white shark has ever been recorded coming so close to Texas shores (she was detected about two hundred yards from land). But calling her trip unusual may be a stretch, because it elides what we know about white sharks: very little. We still don’t know where white sharks mate or where mature females like LeeBeth give birth. Nor do we know exactly how long they gestate before giving birth. We have only estimates on when they reach maturity and how long they typically live. And we know very little about what they hunt and eat when visiting the Gulf, although the limited stomach-content analysis we do have tells us they’re passing on Padre’s famed baskets of fried shrimp and opting for dolphins, sea turtles, red drum, and smaller sharks. All of that is to say, trips like LeeBeth’s are probably more common than we realize, and they were likely typical of her species before the white shark population was decimated by overfishing.

Scientists at the Atlantic White Shark Conservancy believe that the white shark population dropped by as much as 80 percent when shark fishing ramped up between the 1960s and 1980s. But white sharks have been in recovery mode since 1997, when the species was first listed as prohibited, making it off-limits for commercial or recreational harvest. Texans have been taking notice of an increase in white shark appearances in the Gulf of Mexico for at least ten years. You might recall the headlines when, in 2014, a famed and tracked white shark named Katharine even teased a Texas coast appearance (she turned back toward the Atlantic before she made it). 

“I like to remind people that we’re tracking the sharks into areas that some folks might think are entirely new for the species, but what we’re really doing is monitoring the comeback of a species that was fished almost to the brink of extinction,” Winton said. “It’s possible we see that species distribution shift in response to climate change, or in response to how their primary prey species shift in climate change, but what we’re seeing right now is them recolonizing their historic range as their population recovers.”

Winton calls the Gulf of Mexico the new frontier when it comes to white shark research, and she says LeeBeth’s remarkable journey speaks to the importance of the area for the species. Just last year, scientists with the Texas A&M at Galveston Gulf Research Institute for Highly Migratory Species recorded white sharks in the Flower Garden Banks National Marine Sanctuary, about a hundred miles from Galveston, for the first time.

“We’ve known from historical catch records and sightings that have been collected over the past century that the Gulf of Mexico is a really important overwintering habitat for white sharks,” Winton says. “But we don’t know that much about how they use the area exactly, or what it is they’re doing when they’re there.” 

For Texas spring breakers, who are maybe less familiar (and less comfortable) with the notion of swimming alongside a great white shark, Winton encourages observing standard shark-safety protocols: avoid swimming in murky water, don’t isolate yourself while swimming, and avoid excessive splashing (and remember that your odds of being attacked by a shark are vanishingly low, at 1 in 3.7 million). Although Winton’s work primarily deals with protecting and conserving the species, she’s not deterred by my question about how its reappearance might have Texas swimmers feeling nervous.

“Balancing that fear with respect is kind of the biggest conservation challenge right now. You have to have a healthy respect for an animal with big, sharp, pointy teeth,” Winton says. “We’re learning a lot about these sharks, but we’re learning about them so we can provide information to the towns, to the beach managers, and to people. But they’re not out to get people.” She compares the experience of swimming in waters visited by great whites to hiking in a mountain destination with grizzly bears, where folks learn to take precautions. “If you go into a national park where there are grizzly bears, you’re going to be bear-safe. That same kind of thing goes for sharks.”

Per the Atlantic White Shark Conservancy’s Sharktivity app, LeeBeth last pinged on March 7, heading back east toward Louisiana. What she ate, what she encountered, and how exactly she spent her time while swimming along the Texas coast remains mostly unknown.

But as many Texans can attest, a trip to South Padre for spring break is a good time. Especially when you haven’t been in a while . . .





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