File photo by THE CANADIAN PRESS A shark known as “Hilton” is seen in this undated handout photo.

Great white’s travels captivate Nova Scotians

HALIFAX — He was first detected July 30 in the cold, dark waters off Shelburne, near Nova Scotia’s southwest tip.

He turned up a week later in Mahone Bay and has hovered around there since, near some of the province’s most popular beaches and tourist towns — even brushing by the famous Peggy’s Cove in neighbouring St. Margaret’s Bay.

Hilton — a 600-kilogram shark tagged by the research group Ocearch in March in South Carolina — announces his movements on a Twitter feed that is part science, part mischief and followed by thousands of people.

The highly visible great white, here to feast on an abundance of seals, has kept some Nova Scotians out of the water, but captivated many others.

A man tweeted a photo of shark-shaped pizzas he’d baked for his kids; a woman shared a photo of a possible sighting near Queensland beach, making it clear she was hopeful rather than fearful. Another man tweeted a photo of himself kayaking, saying: “I was … looking for you.”

“I’m not sure what I’m more excited for, the new (Game of Thrones) episode or the next @HiltonTheShark update,” Halifax graphic designer Gregory Dubeau tweeted.

Hilton has pinged seven times in August from a tracker on his dorsal fin, which only sends signals when it breaks the surface, says Ocearch founder and expedition leader Chris Fischer.

Hilton — or more precisely, an Ocearch staffer assuming his identity — tweeted about the pings, along with wisecracks about “yummy” seals and donairs and a mild flirtation with another tagged shark with a Twitter feed, Savannah, who herself made at least a brief visit to Nova Scotia this month.

“Obsessed with where they pop up next!” one woman tweeted.

On Saturday, Hilton surfaced again near Heckman’s Island near Lunenburg, offering a wave emoji: “Say hello if you see me,” he tweeted.

Fischer said Ocearch is keen for the social media conversation, and tries to “amplify” it. Four decades after the release of “Jaws” and its long shadow over the shark brand, the group made a conscious decision to be playful.

“We needed to shift the tone of the conversation around sharks, so people loved up on them like we love up on our big cats, because they perform the same role in the ecosystem, and I think people are getting that,” he said from Long Island, N.Y., where he had just tagged a baby white shark.

Fischer said the great whites are the “balance keepers” of a range reaching from Newfoundland to Florida — like big predatory cats on land, with effects on many other species.

“If the white sharks aren’t there, the seals can just go out and scavenge the entire region at their leisure and tend to wipe out shellfish populations and a lot of fish we count on as food sources.”

“People understand now that if we don’t have a lot of big sharks in the ocean, our kids aren’t going to eat fish. And our industries aren’t going to be managed sustainably, because they’re just so fundamentally important as the apex predator.”

The Atlantic White Shark Conservancy says little is known about where sharks travel, pup and feed, and Fischer’s group aims to solve that puzzle of shark behaviour.

Ocearch has tagged over 300 sharks, almost half of them white sharks, including about 25 on the east coast of North America, and open-sourced the data on its web site and free app.

Fischer says it’s not just Hilton who’s being talked about — similar conversations are underway elsewhere in the world about other Ocearch sharks.

“Being able to give the sharks a voice through social handles, and people can communicate with them, it’s just been a response that’s gone beyond any of our wildest dreams,” he said.

Among those following Hilton is Rear-Admiral John Newton.

The commander of Canada’s East Coast navy has tweeted photos and video showing seals frightened into shallow coves and onto rocks. He shared a photo of people swimming, and joked: “Spent the afternoon looking for @HiltonTheShark at the seal buffet.”

Savannah has made just a single appearance in Nova Scotia, on Aug. 14 off Sherbrooke on the province’s eastern shore.

Another shark, George, pinged a few days earlier in the Bay of Fundy, between Nova Scotia and New Brunswick, but has been quiet for almost two weeks.

They are far from the only sharks in the region — Fischer said there are likely “many more” than the three Ocearch is tracking.

On Sunday, fisherman James Nickerson of Barrington Passage, N.S., posted a Facebook video of what appeared to be a shark attacking a seal.

“Big shark right here — huge,” a man says on the video. “Just ate a seal. Oh, look at that!”

In late July, a 300-kilogram great white shark affectionately known as Pumpkin was detected in Nova Scotia’s Minas Basin.

Last November, a 900-kilogram great white named Lydia — who also has her own Ocearch-managed Twitter account — was among two then tracking off Nova Scotia.

The Atlantic White Shark Conservancy says the animal is the largest predatory fish in the world, with a powerful jaw full of serrated teeth and a body that can weigh up to 1,800 kilograms. But, it says the population in the North Atlantic has dropped by 75 per cent in the past 15 years and is listed by the International Union for Conservation of Nature as vulnerable.

Fischer said he hopes to partner with Canadian researchers for further study on sharks’ behaviour in their waters. He said there is a lot to learn — Hilton’s movements suggest he could be trying to find a mate.

“If we see Hilton continuing to hang around that region in and through September, October, that would be strong evidence that there might be some mating occurring in that region, which would it make it super-important for the whole balance of whole northwest Atlantic.”

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