Great white shark "Mary Lee" is tagged by scientist Dr. Nick Whitney (second from left) during a joint expedition led by OCEARCH and including researchers from the Massachusetts Division of Marine Fisheries and Mote Marine Laboratory. Photo by Caroline Nurse/OCEARCH.

Shark makes waves across social media with Twitter account

While Mary Lee the shark continues to ping across the Atlantic Ocean, the Wilmington resident who runs a popular Twitter account about her is swimming in a sea of new followers.

The account @MaryLeeShark, with more than 81,000 followers, has become a hit among shark fans on social media. The account holder, who asked to remain anonymous, said it's increased by 60,000 followers in the past month.

"She had been sitting off the coast of Savannah for a long time," Mary Lee's Twitter handler said. "She started moving, getting the attention of the media. As soon as she got off the coast of New Jersey, it got insane. It went from 15,000 to 75,000 very quickly."

Mary Lee, first recognized in September 2012 off the coast of Cape Cod, Mass., was the second great white shark tagged by OCEARCH, a research organization that tracks sharks' movements. Soon after, Mary Lee pinged off the coast of Wilmington, and @MaryLeeShark was created. It had a gradual following until recently.

With Internet fame comes great responsibility, though. Mary Lee's Twitter owner checks the shark's location each morning and panders to hundreds of mentions each day, all while trying not to let it become a distraction from the handler's paying job.

Still, the added recognition means the handler spends an estimated four hours each day on Twitter. It's become large enough that a member of the social media team from OCEARCH occasionally helps out.

"Every once in a while, I've got to check in," the handler said. "I don't take a smoke break, so I take a Twitter break. I'll get 500-600 notifications in an hour. When I get a chance, I'll jump in and respond."

The account is known for humor and sarcasm, which breeds popularity in the snark-filled waters of Twitter. People tweet at Mary Lee asking her to stay away from vacation destinations, wondering about favorite meals or even accusing her of an affair.

One time someone was angry the account existed to make light of such possibly dangerous creatures as sharks, to which Mary Lee replied with her usual wit.

"There's always sharks in the ocean," the handler said. "Just because you see that a shark is tweeting, doesn't mean there are more sharks, and it doesn't change their behavior in any way. It's just a Twitter account."

The account did take a more somber tone recently, when three shark bites happened in Southeastern North Carolina over the span of a few days this month, causing two teenage victims to lose limbs.

Members of OCEARCH urged Mary Lee's Twitter handler not to post anything while the two June 14 bites at Oak Island were investigated. The user later re-tweeted an OCEARCH statement and posted Mary Lee's location -- far off the coast of South Carolina -- before resuming jovial banter.

"After OCEARCH came out with its statement, (I felt comfortable)," the user said. "I always try to be respectful of their position. Their scientists are doing real work. So I try to make sure I tip the hat to them as much as possible and be aware of their position but still have fun."

The excitement about the account has reached a point where the handler jokes about having become one with the shark's feelings. And how, exactly, would Mary Lee handle all the unwanted attention?

"I think her feelings would be hurt," the user said. "She's trying to do good by educating the public and raising awareness about sharks and replace that fear with facts. When people jump to the assumption she has something to do with (attacks), I think that would hurt her feelings and she would be very miffed and come looking for you." 

— Vince Nairn, Wilmington StarNews