A Home for OCEARCH

The journey that brought him to Jacksonville began off the coast of Cape Cod on Sept. 17, 2012. On that day, Ocearch Founding Chairman and Expedition Leader Chris Fischer pulled a 16-foot, 3,456-pound great white shark out of the Atlantic Ocean, a massive specimen that he decided to name for his mother, Mary Lee.

“My parents have done so much. I was waiting and waiting for a special shark to name after her and this is truly the most historic and legendary fish I have ever been a part of and it set the tone for Cape Cod,” Fischer said, according to Ocearch’s website.

Fischer and his crew, of the popular nonprofit that researches great whites and other apex ocean predators, put a satellite tracking tag on Mary Lee’s dorsal fin and said goodbye to the majestic creature who would become a social media star almost overnight. (Today, Mary Lee has more than 100,000 Twitter followers.) As one of a very few great whites fitted with real-time tracking devices to give researchers a first peek into the day-to-day travels of the elusive species, Mary Lee traversed the Eastern Seaboard over the ensuing months as a rapt audience kept close watch.

When that journey brought her off the coast of Mayport on Jan. 8, 2013, Fischer, according to the Florida Times-Union’s reporting at the time, was so concerned by her close proximity to the shoreline that he called the Jacksonville Beach Police at 12:46 a.m. to alert them. The following morning, Ocearch posted a warning on their Facebook page that Mary Lee had most recently pinged at “6th Ave. S. and 1st St. S. in the surf break off Jacksonville Beach.”

Already a global phenomenon, that day Mary Lee swam into the hearts of many locals fascinated by the endangered creatures.

Two months later, on March 3, 2013, Fischer found himself again drawn to Northeast Florida, this time when he and the Ocearch crew caught, tagged and released a 14-foot-6-inch, 2,000-pound great white about a half-mile out at sea from the Mayport Poles. They named her Lydia.

Now, four years after Mary Lee and Lydia first lured him here, Fischer will be spending a lot more time in Northeast Florida. On a blustery, sunny day last week, Fischer and a cohort of notables, including a large number of Jacksonville University students, faculty and staff, braved the wind on the banks of the St. Johns River for an announcement that will put the university on the global stage of marine research. Ocearch will now be headquartered at JU, the nonprofit’s vessel, the M/V Ocearch, will homeport in Jacksonville, and Fischer will become the university’s Explorer in Residence. In addition to providing a home for the organization and Fischer, to whom many refer as a modern-day Jacques Cousteau, the collaboration is intended to benefit university students of numerous disciplines, including marketing, public policy, film, engineering, sustainability, communications and, of course, marine and environmental sciences.

In his remarks at JU on Feb. 9, Fischer said that college students have long asked how they can get involved with Ocearch. “Well, we have an answer now: Go to Jacksonville University.”

Fischer, former star of “OutdoorAdventures,” an Emmy-winning show in which he would catch and release fish — except one that he’d prepare and consume — first fell in love with the water when he was growing up in Louisville, Kentucky. Over the years, that love drew him to the ocean, which seems to have become like a second home for the charismatic man.

Recognizing the knowledge gap that leaves many marine science academics lagging behind their counterparts in fishing vessels, Fischer would often invite marine biologists to join his crew on the show. Discovery reported in 2015 that a 2007 conversation with one such scientist led Fischer to his current vocation as a full-time tracker and researcher of sharks. “While we were helping these scientists, one of them looked at me and said, ‘Man, if we lose our giant sharks, we’re not gonna have any billfish or tuna or anything else because they’re the balance keepers and we don’t know enough about their lives to create their future. They’re just too big to catch,’” Fischer told Discovery.

That year, Fischer and his wife sunk their life savings into a decommissioned Bering Sea crabbing vessel with a lift powerful enough to pull enormous animals like Mary Lee and Lydia out of the water. And Ocearch was launched.

Since then, the organization has collaborated with dozens of researchers and tagged more than 200 animals, capturing the imagination of kids old and young and contributing an impressive body of data to the efforts being made to understand these mysterious creatures of the sea.

But the path to living legend hasn’t been without bumps in the road. In recent years, some have taken issue with the nonprofit’s method of hoisting sharks out of the water to tag them, which they believe may endanger the animals and alter their subsequent behavior. In October, Scientific American reported that all four of the sharks Ocearch had tagged off the coast of Cape Cod contemporaneously to (and including) Mary Lee had subsequently abruptly left the area; two returned a year later; as of October, Mary Lee had not returned. Some may consider it ironic that those same critics would not know of the shark’s movements without Ocearch.

The give-and-take between popular scientists and more traditional academics is nothing new — even Cousteau had his critics. By bringing a popular scientist to its academic environment, Jacksonville University is creating a partnership designed to be mutually beneficial to both. The university will be able to expand its curriculum and offer students a singular academic experience; Ocearch will have the benefit of JU’s resources, students and the expertise of its professors.

At the announcement, Dr. A. Quinton White, executive director of the JU Marine Science Research Institute, beamed as he talked about the future for the program and its potential to move the needle toward realistic conservation.

“Now people are a whole lot more conservation-minded,” White said, referencing the development of catch-and-release fishing that allows anglers to experience the joy of the sport without killing the fish.

Pursuing conservation that makes sense is at the heart of Ocearch’s mission; at Thursday’s event, Fischer noted that Ocearch will continue working with centrist organizations that share its vision of conservation. Asked what he thought of those who advocate for a blanket moratorium on ocean fishing to combat fish stock collapse, Fischer rebuffed the suggestion. “That’s not reasonable,” he said, adding that “preservationists become as bad as the poacher” when they advocate for solutions that are not pragmatic. Like the hunters who have worked to save the world’s forests from the buzzsaws of development, people like Fischer believe that anglers may help save the ocean so that future generations may enjoy the abundance of the past, Ocearch’s ultimate aim. Agree or disagree with its methods, there are few who can argue with this goal, which Ocearch and JU will pursue together.

“JU is now the home of the largest shark collaborative in the world,” Fischer said.