Mary Lee has all the trappings of celebrity status: a Twitter account with thousands of followers, fans who follow her every move, a heaping dose of media savvy. The fins, razor-sharp grin and taste for seal flesh are a bit more unusual, but every celebrity has her eccentricities.
Of course, Mary Lee is no Hollywood starlet. She’s a 16-foot, 3,456-pound great white shark. And she’s been lighting up social media this week as she makes her way along the Atlantic Coast.
After spending most of the year in the chilly, deep waters far off the coast of South Carolina and Georgia, Mary Lee suddenly surfaced near Virginia’s Assateague Island early this week.
Since then she’s shot up north to Atlantic City, much to the delight — or terror , as the case may be — of New Jersey residents.
On Twitter, Mary Lee appears to be the Taylor Swift of shark celebrities, constantly interacting with her adoring fans. She cracks “Jaws” jokes and responds to questions with a mixture of flair and self-deprecating snark. When a woman tweeted that her nephew said hello, Mary Lee wrote back “Yo JJ ! What’s up?”
And her reply to the person who wanted to know how she’ll be celebrating Shark Week? “Oh you know, swim, eat, tweet and repeat. Every week is #SharkWeek.”
The Twitter account isn’t affiliated with Ocearch, the nonprofit that tracks Mary Lee and a number of other sharks using satellite tags. But it does the same work that Ocearch is trying to do — making sharks seem less scary through social media.
“The ultimate goal is to replace fear with fascination and curiosity,” Ocearch President Chris Berger told the Christian Science Monitor.
Ocearch aims to achieve that with its Global Shark Tracker, a Web site (and an app!) that allows fish fans to follow sharks in real time. Every time a shark breaks the surface, his or her tracking device “pings” a satellite, sending location data to researchers who then add it to the site.
Sometimes Mary Lee (named for one of the Ocearch researcher’s mothers) will go half a day at a time without surfacing — sometimes she “pings” every few minutes, giving her tracking map the appearance of a toddler’s scribble.
It’s not surprising for a great white to show up as close to shore as Mary Lee has been, George Burgess, director of the Florida program for shark research at the Florida Museum of Natural History, told National Geographic. The animals “spend more of their time near shore because that’s where they do most of their feeding,” he said.
Scientists have been following Mary Lee since 2012, when she was tagged off the coast of Cape Cod, according to National Geographic. Tagging is no easy task: Researchers use a custom-built hydraulic platform to lift a shark out of the water and then bolt a tracker to his or her dorsal fin. During tagging, scientists also take tissue samples, blood tests and even an ultrasound of the momentarily captive animals — who are awake the whole time.
[A video of Ocearch researchers tagging another great white shark named Lydia in March 2013]
The tags last about four or five years — as long as their batteries hold up.
Since her tagging, Mary Lee has traveled more than 19,000 miles. She mostly sticks to the waters off the East Coast but once swam as far east as Bermuda.
Lydia, who also has a Twitter account (her handle is @RockStarLydia), shares Mary Lee’s social media savvy. She’s got thousands of fans, including plenty of kids, and frequently retweets their tokens of affection.
Peter Bordes, an Ocearch board member and head of the social media marketing company oneQube, said that these “celebrity sharks” are helping to form passionate, caring communities around the often-demonized fish.
“People talk about [the sharks], humanize them,” Bordes told the Christian Science Monitor. “It changes perceptions.”
Can Twitter really rehabilitate the image of a hulking predator? Just ask Mary Lee’s 15,000 followers, waiting with bated breath to see where she pops up next.
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