On a whim in November 2012, Jim Ware set up the Twitter account that was to make him the voice – if not the name – of a soon-to-be wildlife celebrity.
That celebrity was Mary Lee, a 1,600kg (3,500lb) female great white shark that had been tagged by the shark research and education organization OCEARCH two months earlier. Mary Lee (who was named after OCEARCH founder Chris Fischer’s mother) had been roaming off the coast of Ware’s home in North Carolina, her tag pinging a satellite with her location when her dorsal fin surfaced.
Until he retired last week, Ware had a day job as a digital media strategist for several newspapers in the state. But personifying Mary Lee through nearly 14,000 tweets for an eventual following of 129,000 – and plenty of media coverage of her activities up and down the United States East Coast – has been a whirlwind ride that has taught him a few things about how to change the public’s perceptions of one of the ocean’s top predators.
Mary Lee hasn’t pinged since June 2017, likely because the battery on her tag gave out. But Ware isn’t giving up his tweeting. And even though Mary Lee’s a little quieter, there are still many other friends of hers to follow through OCEARCH’s Global Shark Tracker and, of course, on Twitter.
Oceans Deeply: What was it like when you first started @MaryLeeShark?
Jim Ware: It was just kind of fun. People started interacting and telling jokes, and they thought it was cool to be talking with a shark.
As she moved up and down the coast, I would check to see where she was and make comments as Mary Lee. I’d look at the local fishing reports and say OK, maybe she’s eating red drum now. We had hundreds, and then thousands, of people start following.
Oceans Deeply: Does she have a particular personality?
Ware: I think somebody early on described it as “shnarky.” There was this backstory of how she used to date Bruce, the shark on Jaws, and he was such a cad. People were scared to death of sharks because of that movie. She was making light of that.
People would say, “Mary Lee, let’s meet up somewhere.” [She’d say]: “Sure, let’s do lunch.” You have to have some fun with it. Pretty soon, people weren’t afraid of sharks. They were seeking out Mary Lee, literally.
Oceans Deeply: Do you know of any real-life interactions because of the communication around her locations?
Ware: No. The only time that she has actually had an interaction that we know of was when she was tagged. She pretty much stays well off the coast. There was a time at Jacksonville Beach, Florida, though, that she was literally in the surf. Chris Fischer called the police and said, “You have a 16ft, 3,500lb shark in your surf right now.” Nobody saw her that we know of, but she was there. They have the data to show it.
Oceans Deeply: There are now clearly many Twitter accounts for individual sharks that OCEARCH has tagged. Was Mary Lee the first one?
Ware: That I know of. Since then, it’s gone a little crazy. There are some accounts that are run by OCEARCH – they have a social media manager. Some people who have become my friends over the years run other accounts, like Helen the Shark, which has become really popular. She’s a great white off the coast of South Africa. One of my friends who is in the state of Washington runs that account. She does a great job with it.
On the back side, the two of us talk as people. We have a little chat group where some of us can talk about what’s going on in our lives other than sharks.
Oceans Deeply: I heard Mary Lee hasn’t pinged in a year. Is that because the battery on the tag died?
Ware: That’s probably it. First, they were saying she had a four-year battery life, then five because of other sharks that lasted longer. Katharine, who was tagged not too far after Mary Lee, she pinged earlier this year. Betsy every once in a while gets a low-quality ping, where you can’t really determine the location. So she’s still out there. There’s always a chance. There’s a super remote chance they may spot Mary Lee again and retag her, but that’s improbable.
Oceans Deeply: Are you sad that the tracking is mostly over?
Ware: She did become part of my life. I would wake up in the morning, and the first thing I’d do is I’d grab my phone and check the Shark Tracker to see where she was and what she was doing. She will travel hundreds of miles in a day, so you never knew where she’s going to end up. Instead of taking smoke breaks, I would be taking shark breaks checking my phone to see where she was at. She pinged a lot. I think that was one of the reasons for her popularity. Once in a while, she’d go quiet for a month or so. People would go nuts – where’s Mary Lee, why is she not pinging? There were all these theories of what was going on.
Oceans Deeply: What lessons have you learned about changing people’s attitudes about sharks and communicating the importance of conservation?
Ware: Chris Fischer gives a lot of credit to Mary Lee and the interactions with her to reversing the Jaws mentality, where all they want to do is kill great white sharks because they were these demons in the ocean. In fact, they are solitary animals mostly, and rarely have any interactions with people.
They can live to be 70 years. These East Coast sharks cruise from Nova Scotia all the way down around Florida and into the Gulf Coast. Nobody knew that before. We’re getting an education. We’re watching these sharks, and we’re learning: “My gosh, they are here all the time, they are swimming all this way.” They are really not having interactions with people. They are just fascinating to watch and learn about.
Oceans Deeply: Are you worried at all about Mary Lee, as far as human threats?
Ware: Not really. She usually stays so far offshore away from anything like that. There are people out there who are still fishing for sharks. They are still finning. Hundreds of thousands of sharks die like that all the time. And the sharks are important to the health of the ocean, from what I’ve learned. They are an apex predator.
Oceans Deeply: Are you going to keep tweeting as Mary Lee indefinitely?
Ware: I guess as long as Twitter is around. Social media could change tomorrow.