My secret life as a female great white shark

Three years ago today, shortly after 3 p.m. EST on Nov. 28, 2012, an amazing thing happened. A great white shark named Mary Lee tweeted about her meal, just as millions of humans do every day.

The ichthyological reference to the red drum, the state saltwater fish of North Carolina, combined with a cinematic reference to a key scene from the movie The Shining, seemed to appeal to a particular Twitter audience. Within a month @MaryLeeShark was being followed by 300 people on Twitter and local news reports mentioned the tweeting shark.

Since then @MaryLeeShark gained a following of more than 90,000 on Twitter and is the subject of news stories worldwide.

It all started Sept. 17, 2012, when the 16-foot-long, 3,456-pound mature female great white shark was captured by the crew of M/V OCEARCH off the coast of Cape Cod, Mass.

Chris Fischer, expedition leader for OCEARCH, named the shark Mary Lee, after his mother. On Mary Lee’s profile page, Fischer wrote:

“My parents have done so much. I was waiting and waiting for a special shark to name after her and this is truly the most historic and legendary fish I have ever been a part of and it set the tone for Cape Cod.”

Scientists and crew aboard M/V OCEARCH performed about a dozen tests in the quarter-hour Mary Lee was on the ship’s lift, providing unprecedented access to a live mature great white. Scientists also attached a SPOT tag to Mary Lee’s dorsal fin. The tag is basically a shark GPS that uses a satellite connection to provide location data to OCEARCH.

That data is shared worldwide via the OCEARCH Global Shark Tracker app for mobile devices or on its website. For one of the first times, the travels of a great white shark could be followed by anyone with Internet access, including students, office workers, scientists and, in my case, journalists.

By late November 2012, Mary Lee had traveled more than 800 miles south and was off the coast of Wilmington, N.C. Thanks to frequent pings — a reference to the times her tracking device connected with the satellite — Mary Lee was already becoming a media darling.

Cassie Foss, a fellow reporter at the time, and I were talking about Mary Lee over our desk divider at the StarNews on the afternoon of Nov. 28 when I wondered out loud if Mary Lee had a Twitter account. Surely she did, I thought. How could she not?

I searched Twitter for “Mary Lee shark” and found no results. So almost breathlessly I hustled to create the @MaryLeeShark account at 2:55 p.m., thinking I was the first to come up with the idea. In the profile I used the name “Mary Lee the shark.” (Earlier this year I stumbled across the unrelated @MaryLeeTheShark account, which was created Nov. 5, 2012, and last tweeted on Jan. 9, 2013. The account is still active if you would like to see tweets predating the @MaryLeeShark account.)

The “Red drum, red drum! Nom nom” tweet at 3:14 p.m. Nov. 28, 2012, was @MaryLeeShark’s first of more than 5,900 tweets so far. I followed up with a link to a story from television station WBTV in Charlotte, N.C., about Mary Lee’s movements north from South Carolina.

Cassie quickly jumped on the media bandwagon, piecing together a story about Mary Lee’s visit to the Cape Fear coast, her rise to fame and the science behind it. The comments on the story acknowledge Mary Lee’s entry into social media.

Until this day, fewer than 50 people knew I was the Twitter voice behind @MaryLeeShark. Some of those people work with me at the StarNews in Wimington, N.C., while others are on the staff at OCEARCH. But in the early days, only a handful of reporters and editors knew. Unfortunately Kate Elizabeth Queram was not among those in the inner circle.

Kate, a talented reporter and writer with a razor-sharp wit, somehow got the idea to interview Mary Lee via Twitter. So there we sat, not 10 feet apart, with Kate giving a running commentary as she conducted a Twitter-view with Mary Lee. It didn’t help that editors had suggested some pretty far-out questions to get at the reason for Mary Lee’s visit to the waters off of North Carolina’s coast.

Here’s part of that exchange from @MaryLeeShark’s point of view, including retweets:

Longtime followers will note the first appearance of the shark smiley face — -:() — in the “land shark” tweet. That smiley face has since evolved into the winking shark smiley face — -;() — and is one of Mary Lee’s trademarks on Twitter.

Kate, as expected, wrote a fun — and educational — story about her Twitter encounter with Mary Lee. It wasn’t until days later that somebody ratted me out and Kate confronted me at my desk, accusing me of knowingly embarrassing her by not revealing the source of Mary Lee’s tweets. Suddenly the ruse wasn’t nearly as much fun as it had seemed. It was months before she spoke to me again without referring to me as her nemesis.

(Some of you might recognize Kate’s name from recent news reports about how she met her husband, fellow Michigan Wolverines fan Brandon Wagoner, in the comments section of an ESPN blog.)

Since being tagged, Mary Lee has traveled 25,444 miles, more than the distance around the Earth.

I’ve tried to offer a variety of tweets, a mix of snarky humor along with reports about the location of OCEARCH-tagged sharks from the shark tracker. I’ve retweeted news about OCEARCH and kept followers advised of scientific and environmental news affecting sharks.

Most people just want to know Mary Lee’s latest position. They get a little anxious when Mary Lee doesn’t ping for a week or more.

Mary Lee’s Twitter following grew steadily, hitting 6,000 in December 2014. Back in those days we celebrated by offering prizes.

Then on April 22, 2015, a dramatic increase in followers began as the result of news coverage related to Mary Lee’s move north.

But that was nothing compared to the explosion in followers the next month. Mary Lee gained 68,500 followers in May 2015 as she traveled near the New Jersey shore and buzzed New York.

And the media was in a feeding frenzy. A Google News search for 2015 turned up 139 results in half a second.

It was a story by Philip Marcelo of The Associated Press that spread Mary Lee’s fame around the world.

One of my favorite interviews was by the great Stan Grossfeld of the Boston Globe, who flew down for a couple of days so we could talk at Wrightsville Beach and he could shoot some photos of me in the surf without giving away my identity. That’s right, Stan — a Pulitzer Prize-winning photographer — wanted to take MY photo. His idea was to recreate a photo inspired by the Jimmy Buffet song Fins. It sounded like a good idea at the time. Even after many dunks in the surf, I have to say Stan was right.

The most rewarding aspect of tweeting for Mary Lee has been collaborating with Chris Fischer and Caroline Nurse to get the word out about the OCEARCH mission.

My hope is that — during the past three years — in some small way I’ve been able to enlighten my followers about the importance of sharks to the health of our oceans.

I don’t know how long Mary Lee’s tracking device will keep pinging. The battery usually lasts about four years, but environmental issues could change that expectation. All I know is that I plan to keep tweeting as long as she keeps pinging and as long as OCEARCH keeps tracking her.

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