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Is great white shark headed toward Tampa Bay? Pings say yes (with video)

Her name is Katharine and she's 14 feet long and weighs more than a ton. She's been causing a bit of stir on Florida's east coast with a sighting off Key Largo on May 19 after she swam past Fort Lauderdale and Miami.

Now she appears to be heading through the Straits of Florida and into the Gulf of Mexico, possibly toward Tampa Bay. She could even hook up with Betsy, another behemoth who's hanging out off the coast of Sarasota right now.

Don't freak out, but these are two great white sharks. And researchers think they could hold the key to protecting the world's oceans.

They were tagged within a week of each other off the coast of Cape Cod in August by researchers from OCEARCH. The organization's mission is to use technology to solve the puzzle of multiyear migrations to great white shark nurseries so that scientists can protect them, said founding chairman and expedition leader Chris Fischer. Mote Marine Laboratory's Center for Shark Research in Sarasota is one of the organization's partners.

Partnering with world-class fishermen and researchers, they devised a way to catch the huge sharks, test them, tag them and release them without injury, he said. Now their movements are tracked on OCEARCH.org, which updates every 30 minutes.

You can see where Katharine or Betsy — or any one of the other sharks that are being tracked — is located at any given time.

Katharine is an especially good research subject because she comes up often to break the surface with her dorsal fin and pings, sending a signal to a satellite to track her location. So far she has traveled almost 4,000 miles from the breeding grounds of Cape Cod. If she returns there in the fall, she's likely not pregnant, because female sharks only return every other year if they are pregnant.

But if she doesn't, it would signal that she's probably pregnant and could lead scientists to the nurseries.

They also are tracking Lydia and Mary Lee, who are pregnant, and hope to get an answer to where the Atlantic nursery might be in July. Fischer said scientists believe it would be one of two great white nurseries in the earth's oceans.

Other than the intrinsically cool aspect of knowing where great whites are heading from day to day, why is this research so important?

Great whites are "the lions of the ocean," said Fischer, who founded the research institute in 2007 after he decided to end a successful fishing show and get into research because of his love of the oceans. "They keep the balance in the oceans. Without them, there would be no fish."

So far, OCEARCH has gone on 19 expeditions and tagged 150 sharks, about 50 of which are still pinging. If they do discover the nursery, they plan on tagging the juvenile sharks and following them to learn further how they impact the ocean.

Fischer believes the public nature of being able to track the sharks through social media, smartphone apps and a website will get people interested in saving the ocean. For example, Katharine the Shark has about 7,500 followers on Twitter.

"We need another global ocean movement," he said. "It's getting hammered."

Rather than close off the data until important information is released from the North America Shark Research Project, he chose to share everything in real time, even partnering with a company to create an educational program linked to the research that teaches kids math and science using the shark study.

"It's all about the power of inclusion," said Fischer, who grew up in Kentucky and loved fishing and the outdoors. "We're transitioning a research program into a global ocean movement."

He laughed when a question was asked about where great whites generally hang out in the ocean.

"They go wherever they want," he replied. "They are half bull shark, half mako, inshore and offshore. They own it wherever they go."

As for Katharine, who was named after Katharine Lee Bates, the American songwriter who penned America the Beautiful, Fischer said: "It'll be interesting to see what (she) does."

Beachgoers, you might want to consider downloading that app, just in case.

Information from the Miami Herald was used in this report.

Keep up with Katharine, Betsy

• Go to OCEARCH.org and click on the shark tracker.

• Download the app from iTunes or any Android store (OCEARCH Global Shark Tracker).

• Follow on Twitter or Facebook.

A caveat: George Burgess, director of the Florida Program for Shark Research at the Florida Museum of Natural History in Gainesville, said it's important to remember that for those following Katharine online, her location might not always be exact. "There is a cone of uncertainty around where that shark is on every given time," he said. "We need to remember there are restrictions on what that technology tells us."

'It's a female!'

Watch the excitement and suspense as Katharine is tracked and captured off the coast of Cape Cod. It's at tampabay.com/video

Is great white shark headed toward Tampa Bay? Pings say yes (with video) 05/23/14 [Last modified: Monday, May 26, 2014 10:48pm]

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