This Is the Largest Tiger Shark Ever Tagged off the East Coast. Biologist Arnold Postell Tells Us Why She’s Hanging Out off the Carolinas.

by Owen James Burke

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Above: Brian Frazier of the South Carolina Department of Natural Resources tags “Chessie”, the largest tiger shark ever tagged of the United States’ East Coast. Photo: Chip Michalove/Ocearch.

In late May, Captain Chip Michalove took South Carolina Department of Resources scientists shark tagging on his charter boat, Outcast. Shark tagging, it might come as a surprise to some, requires good old fashion rod, reel and line fishing. They were bobbing just outside the mouth of the Chechessee River when a line went taut.

Two hours later, a 12-foot, 2-inch female tiger shark–twice the size of most sharks encountered in these waters–was alongside the rail of Outcast. She was tagged, given the name “Chessie”, after the river mouth where she hooked, released, and you can now track her online for free, here, thanks to the non-profit organization OCEARCH.

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Ed’s note: While we were editing this interview, a serious attack occurred on June 14, just north of Chessie at Oak Island, NC, It looks like she wasn’t the culprit based on her pings, but it just goes to show that her cousins are out there. “People shouldn’t be scared to go in the water, but they should be dutifully cautious,” George Burgess, director of the Florida Program for Shark Research at the University of Florida’s Florida Museum of Natural History, told Wilmington, NC’s Star News. “Obviously there’s at least one shark out there that’s prone to biting and has sufficient size to have caused very serious injuries.”

We were curious as to whether such a large tiger shark was normal for these waters, so we asked South Carolina Aquarium Senior Biologist and shark expert Arnold Postell.

In short, it’s a good sign that such a large predator would hold out off these waters, as ecologically, it is probably the single-best indication of a healthy and thriving ecosystem.

Scut: You swim in those waters all the time with your kids – does this give you any pause? 

Arnold Postell: No. Nothing has changed since I was in the water last.  The animals have always been there, we are just getting a better sense of location and movement from all the tracking being done.

Have you ever seen a tiger shark that big on a dive off South Carolina, or anywhere else?

I have seen tiger sharks diving off the coast of SC and have caught a smaller one fishing at the jetties years ago.

What’s the most impressive thing to you about tigers and/or this shark?

Tigers and bulls are the two local species that I do have a lot of respect for. They are big, powerful animals and are not as predictable as smaller coastal sharks.

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Photo:Chip Michalove/Ocearch.

Would this tiger be off the Carolinas all year long or migrate?

Possibly both options are feasible. They could go into deeper water possibly in the winter to get a little warmer water. I think the tracking systems researchers are using on tigers, bulls and great whites on the east coast is opening up a whole new understanding of these animals and their locations. Again remember, they have always been out there, we are just more aware due to technology.

Scuttlefish editor Chris Dixon surfs some pretty far out and remote shoal sandbars off the South Carolina coast, and I make my way down around there every so often too – should this give us pause? Would you surf those bars knowing this girl’s out there?

Yes, you should pause and remember you haven’t been bitten surfing the shoals so far. Do you know anyone who has? Yes, those shoal areas do have a chance of having sharks, but so does the beach.

How old do you reckon she is?

I’m not sure on growth rates for tiger sharks but that is a big older animal.

Would she ever go up into the tidal creeks behind the Carolina/Georgia/Florida barrier islands like a bull shark?

Going behind a barrier island might be possible, but I think there would be limitations on the creeks due to salinity changes. I wouldn’t say going into the creeks is impossible, but not as likely and definitely not as far as a bull.  Bulls sharks are one of the few species of any fish that can swim from pure saltwater to pure freshwater and back without issue.

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From: Fishes, 1907 by Jordan David Starr.

Looking at OCEARCH’s tracker, Chessie seems to be hovering back and forth, sort of north and south off Charleston – and more recently she headed up to North Carolina; what, if anything, are these pings telling you in regards to where she might venture?

It tells me that we are learning more about these animals! Seasonality, locations, territory range, possibly breeding location and pupping locations. All valuable info as scientists continue to learn about these species. Managing sharks’ populations is a key part in taking care of the ocean. Large predators have a purpose and are needed to keep the oceans healthy.

Big predators need food.  This shark, like many is probably cruising the wrecks and reefs looking for food. We have a well-managed fishery and that provides a lot of food for predators. Not just sharks, but other larger fish. I have even started to see and hear about goliath grouper becoming more frequently seen off South Carolina.


A special thanks to Arnold Postell and Kate Dittloff, and the South Carolina Aquarium! -OJB

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