By Barbara Liston
ORLANDO Fla. (Reuters) - A great white shark tagged in 2013 with a satellite tracking device is charting a groundbreaking map of the shark highway from Cape Cod to the Gulf of Mexico.
Though the route comes close enough to populated areas to cue the heart-pounding notes from the movie "Jaws," the threat is miniscule, said Chris Fischer, founder of Ocearch.org, a global non-profit group that researches the one of the top predators in the marine food chain.
“Remember, they’ve always been doing that. We just know it for the first time,” Fischer said.
Scientists knew that great whites came to Florida and frequented the Gulf of Mexico. But exactly how they got there was a mystery until a great white dubbed "Katharine," a young 14.5-foot (4.4-metre) and 2,300-pound (1,040-kg) shark, showed the way.
Her habit of surfacing frequently so that the device on her dorsal fin came out of the water provided dozens of data points in Florida.
Katharine swam south in the surf line along Florida’s Atlantic coast and visited Biscayne Bay near downtown Miami before making the turn into the Gulf, Fischer said.
Rather than swing south around Cuba on her way to the Gulf, Katharine took a short cut between Key West and the Dry Tortugas near reefs popular with divers, Fischer said.
He said Katharine spent most of her travels between one and 10 miles offshore but detoured without fanfare into Ponce Inlet near Jacksonville and other inlets likely looking for food.
“If you’re a great white shark and you’re on the move and you’re hungry, you’re going to give these little places a little fly-by where there could be ... a lot of fish,” Fischer said.
Her travels, and those of other great whites tagged by Ocearch, a non-profit, open-source science collaboration, can be followed on Ocearch.org’s interactive tracking maps (http://www.ocearch.org)
Besides Katharine, Ocearch is following the travels around Florida of three other great white females. Fischer said the sharks will provide information that can be used to help protect their breeding and birthing grounds and migratory paths.
Florida recorded 23 out of the 47 shark bites in the United States last year, according to the University of Florida’s International Shark Attack File.
But don't blame the great white, experts say. Most of the bites are believed to be the work of smaller sharks, such as the black fin, bull and spinner.
Shark experts say the small sharks often mistake limbs dangling from a surf board as small prey. The latest victim was Jessica Vaughn, 22, who was bitten on Sunday while tubing near Fort Lauderdale, local media reported. She is expected to make a full recovery.
(Editing by David Adams and Jonathan Oatis)