The Hunt for a Lost Shark Tracker

by Jun 4, 2024Animals, Online Exclusives, South Brunswick

When a satellite tracker pops off a great white shark, OIB beachgoers find it, saving valuable scientific data.

When “Umi” the great white shark lost her satellite tracking tag at Ocean Isle Beach this spring, the search was on to find it so scientists could capture its important data. OCEARCH is an organization that helps scientists collect migration, behavior and habitat data on great white sharks using these satellite trackers. The one they affixed to Umi was pinging loud and clear on Ocean Isle Beach on May 4, somewhere next to the beach houses on the isle’s east end.

North Carolina Aquariums Division Director Hap Fatzinger said the tags are designed to pop off at a predesignated time. Many of them are not recoverable, but this one was. He said the trackers ordinarily transmit data directly to satellites, but researchers can retrieve more data if they can obtain the popped-off tags.

So Fatzinger immediately contacted the Ocean Isle Beach Sea Turtle Protection Organization (OIBSTPO), and the hunt for a lost shark tracker was on.

Photo Courtesy of OCEARCH- Chris Ross

Photo Courtesy of OCEARCH- Chris Ross

“We enjoy a good treasure hunt and love all marine life, so when Hap reached out to us for help finding it, we were excited and happy to help,” said Deb Allen, OIBSTPO’s director. “This was a first, though. In the past we’ve helped with whale strandings and rehabilitated sea turtle releases, but never a lost tracking tag for a great white.”

Allen issued an early morning alarm to the group’s army of volunteers, and Katy Hoover and Mike and Tammy Applegate proceeded to the GPS coordinates supplied by Fatzinger around 7 am.

The pings have a location accuracy of 300 meters, and they appeared to be coming from a beach house close to the isle’s new terminal groin. Fatzinger remarked that finding it would not be an easy task, but a similar hunt some years ago at Pine Knoll Shores was successful.

Katy Hoover OCEARCH representative

The isle’s sea turtle volunteers are a resourceful bunch, and they engage the help of residents and visitors to save the lives of endangered sea turtles. Hoover took a page from that gamebook by asking morning beach dog walker Dave MacLeod if he would keep an eye out. She showed him a photo of the tracker for reference.  Then she asked the same of another group of folks who were shelling.

“We chatted for a moment, he turned and walked towards the groin and bent down and picked it right up. That all transpired in about a minute,” Hoover said. They all happened to be in the right place at the right time.

Recovered shark tracker Brunswick NC

MacLeod said he was only about 50 yards west of the groin on the beach. “I looked down and said, ‘There it is.’ That’s the thing. There was no mistaking it. It wasn’t a shell or a fish, and it was easy to identify. I yelled at Katy and the other volunteers, and I walked it back and turned it over.” He said it had about a half-inch yellow indicator window on it, which indicated it was operational.

Hoover and MacLeod said it was covered in sand, barnacles and “ocean fuzz” but still doing its job.

Photo Courtesy of OCEARCH - Chris Ross

Photo Courtesy of OCEARCH – Chris Ross

The team effort in finding the tracker will enable OCEARCH to upload a full year of valuable data about Umi’s life, according to Fatzinger. The information will help OCEARCH, the North Carolina Aquariums and other conservation organizations raise awareness about the sharks’ role in maintaining healthy maritime ecosystems.

Allen sent a congratulatory message to the OIB sea turtle team shortly thereafter: “Outstanding job, Katy, Dave, Mike and Tammy!”