Finding great whites off East Coast 'like a needle in a haystack'

(Source: Robert Snow/OCEARCH)

OFF THE COAST OF JACKSONVILLE, Fla. (WCIV) - In a research vessel stationed off the coast of Jacksonville, Fla., members from OCEARCH captured and tagged another Great White shark Sunday.

She's 14.5 feet long and weighs nearly 2,000 pounds. Her name is Lydia, after Lydia Moss Bradley, the founder of Bradley University and long-time friend of Caterpillar, who is sponsoring OCEARCH for three years.{}Lydia is the first great white captured, satellite tagged and released in an area south of Cape Cod, Mass.

Researchers found the 2,000-pound shark at the mouth of St. Johns River, which is near the popular surfing spot of Mayport Poles near Jacksonville.

GALLERY: OCEARCH finds Lydia off coast of Florida

It was another quiet day aboard the OCEARCH research vessel until members of the crew started to get word that the fishing boat had hooked a shark. That's when the crew of the safe boat headed out to see the catch for themselves. "It seems a little too far for them to drive the shark all the way over here. It's too dangerous," said one of the crew members. So the research vessel moved closer to the coast and the shark."Finding sharks in this area -- we say it over and over again: it's like a needle in a haystack," said Dr. Greg Skomal.

It was an exciting moment for all when the shark arrived.

"Even when everybody says it's impossible and the conditions are wrong, you never give up and that is how you make history," said OCEARCH founder Chris Fischer.

Lydia makes the third great white shark tagged off the East Coast of the United States by OCEARCH. The research group also tagged and is tracking Genie, a 14-foot, nearly 2,300-pound shark, and Mary Lee, a 16-foot, nearly 3,500-pound shark. Both were tagged with a satellite tracking device in September.

"We pulled up to get out of the wind and realize sharks like to hang around jetties - you know seemed like a good thing to do so we were just hanging out. We were chumming as hard as we possibly could," Fischer said. "Jaws come wide open. It didn't even hesitate. Most of the time they circle, (but she) came right up -- boom!"

And then the pandemonium began.

"We had to take the motors completely out of gear, raise them up. We had the shark locked up, he is pulling the boat hard in reverse, water is spraying over the transom, Brent and I are in the motors trying to figure this whole thing out. It gets figured out, straightened out. We just got really really lucky," he said.

Once Lydia was pulled into the ship{}with a one-of-a-kind{}a lift, the crew had only 15 minutes to collect blood samples, perform an ultrasound to see if she is pregnant, and equip her with tracking equipment, much like the other two great whites that have been traveling up and down the Eastern seaboard most of the winter.

GALLERY: Images from Mary Lee's capture and tagging

"I've been studying sharks for 40 years and been all over the world and every continent except Antarctica studying living sharks," said Dr. Bob Hueter, a marine laboratory scientist with Mote. "Believe it or not, I've never seen a great white alive. Hueter was responsible for overseeing the operation while a dozen procedures were performed on the shark. Afterwards, it was surreal for all those involved as history was made. "In the moment we're all doing our jobs and everything, but after, I literally told Fred I loved him. It was just an amazing feeling, the accomplishment and to see that animal, the glory of that fish," Hueter said. "You know, I never touched a live white shark before."

Fischer says tens of thousands of people are following the sharks' travels online."What most people don't understand is that the reason the research community doesn't know much about our ocean's giants is that they've never had the capacity to capture a 35-hundred-pound shark and let it go alive. And in order to do that, you need fishermen and scientists to come together. You can't expect a scientist and an intern to pull that off by themselves," Fischer said.

The OCEARCH crew preps for months for expeditions like the one off the coast of Jacksonville, Fla., that landed the find of a lifetime -- a 14-foot white shark off the East Coast. To find out more about those preparations, click here.

OCEARCH is funded by sponsors and donors, and a South Africa expedition was the subject of History channel's "Shark Wranglers."

The project aims to help shed light on the sharks' migration patterns, protect breeding and birthing sites, improve public safety and raise awareness about sharks.

"One of the big part of our mission and the reason why you are here is to be inclusive. We are trying to allow the whole world to feel like they can be on the ship to experience modern day exploration," said Fischer.

This was OCEARCH's 16th expedition and the crew has been out to sea since Feb. 20.

To track Mary Lee, Genie,{}Lydia and other great white sharks,{}click here. When more is known about the sharks, then more can be done to protect them, OCEARCH said.