Researchers with the OCEARCH program who tagged and released a great white shark they caught off the coast of Mayport on Sunday say it was the first great white ever caught, studied, tagged and released in the southeastern United States.
"It was against all odds," said Brett McBride, co-captain of the M/V OCEARCH. "I mean, we were just out there putting in our time, freezing cold, just losing all faith that, 'Is there really even a shark anywhere close by?'"
Images: Great White caught off coast
"It's an enormous moment for science, and it's also a great moment for Jacksonville," said Chris Fischer, expedition leader and OCEARCH founder.
Fischer said now that researchers know great whites are in southern waters, it changes everything.
"We set out years ago to help the brightest scientists in the world get their hands on the ocean's giants so we could explode the body of knowledge forward," he said. "The fact of the matter is, these scientists have never been able to get their hands on a large, mature white shark before because they're just too big to handle. And because of that, we don't have the data to manage their future."
Researchers are hoping to learn where great white sharks breed and give birth so they can protect those areas.
"If there's no robust future for the sharks, there is no robust future for the ocean," Fischer said.
That's why OCEARCH is tagging the "lions of the ocean."
Researchers install a total of four electronic tracking devices on each shark. The main one is placed on the shark's fin, and every time the shark surfaces, it sends a signal to a satellite, which anyone can track on OCEARCH's website.
The other tags allow scientists and researchers to record light, depth temperature and movement. They have 15 minutes to mount the tags and collect blood samples and parasites off the shark to take back to the lab, and everyone on board has a job, including shark experts from the University of North Florida.
"We do the reproductive work, so that's just a key component that we can add, and that we're local and we have local knowledge of the water and where to go and where some of the sightings have been," UNF research biologist Mike McCallister said. "It's been a great opportunity for us and a good opportunity for the university."
It's also a great opportunity for science -- a historic moment. The rest is up to Lydia -- the shark tagged in local waters -- her track and the crew determined to stay on track to learn as much as they can about the ocean's giants.
"When you look around and you know that you've accomplished an impossible task with a group of people with the greatest tenacity of any explorers in history, and that euphoria that comes from that is something that's undescribable," Fischer said. "It is not an adrenaline rush. It is not fun. It's very stressful, and you feel great responsibility going through the process to make sure all the people and the sharks are looked after in the best way possible."