John Watson was raising his center console’s anchor when he saw two fins emerge from the placid water.“It was incredible,” says Watson, 54, of Wilmington, N.C. “My first thought was it was two sunfish swimming side by side —
that is how big it was. The shark just moseyed on over and started circling the boat for about 20 minutes. He circled the boat at least 30 times.”
Watson had taken his son, Michael, and two friends fishing aboard his 21-foot Key West in late November off Wrightsville Beach, N.C. The anglers, fishing for grouper and snapper on a sunny 75-degree day with little wind and calm seas, were about 25 miles offshore when the great white shark made its presence known.
“He was so curious that he came up at one point and slammed the front of the boat and, as his upper body hit the submerged bow, the boat actually turned from, say, 12 o’clock to 8 o’clock,” says Watson, who has fished these waters for 25 years. “After a while he just starting nudging the boat with the side of his head, and then one time he came up and just rammed [the boat] with the side of his head and … took his tail and literally just slapped the boat to the point where it was very loud and the boat shuddered. You could feel the vibration.”
No one was scared, though, says Michael Watson, 26, of Annapolis, Md. “I was more in awe than scared,” he says. “I was in awe of just how big and beautiful it was. It was a completely flawless creature. A lot of times you’ll see great whites on the Discovery Channel and they look beat up. This shark had no marks on it at all and it was so calmly moving through the water.”
Matt Garrett, 27, who was visiting from Boston, captured the scene on video with his iPhone. The anglers can be heard estimating the shark’s length as it swims alongside the boat. “It has got to be at least 12 feet,” one angler says.
“At least. I think he is more than 15,” another man says in the two-minute video, which has gone viral on the Internet.
John Watson then points out that the shark is the reason the fish suddenly stopped biting. The anglers eventually decided that the shark was about 18 feet.
The fishermen used no chum that day. They fished with frozen cigar minnows and squid, as well as some jigs. All that activity may have attracted the shark, Michael Watson says. John Watson thinks the shark was reacting to the anchor being pulled up. His son had hooked something that wouldn’t budge and they realized he had gotten caught on the anchor rode.
“As I’m reaching down to grab the anchor chain, I looked up past the buoy we had dropped to mark the ledge, and these two huge fins came out of the water,” the elder Watson says. “Hand-lining the anchor up may have caused some type of noise or reverberation.”
John Watson freed the hook and dropped the anchor again, but minutes later he instructed the fourth angler, Don Smith, of Wilmington, to retrieve it. “We certainly didn’t want that thing grabbing the anchor line,” Michael Watson says. “Who knows what would have happened? My first thought was to grab my camera. I was moving around the boat trying to take pictures and making sure I did not fall in.”
Smith, who was standing at the anchor locker, told his crewmates that when the shark’s head was a few feet abaft the bow, its body extended all the way to the transom. “[Don] had probably the best look at the shark to see how long it was,” says John Watson, who operates a janitorial supply house in Wilmington. “Don said, ‘Oh my God, John, it’s almost as big as the boat.’ “
It’s unlikely that the anchor activity attracted the shark, says Michael Domeier, one of the world’s foremost great white shark experts and president and executive director of the non-profit Marine Conservation Science Institute. “More likely it saw the silhouette of the boat on the surface and decided to check it out,” says Domeier, who has seen the video clip. When the shark bumped and slapped the boat, it was probably “trying to figure out what it was — whether it was something to eat.”
The shark was probably in a migratory pattern, heading from its northern summer grounds to its southern winter grounds, he says. “From my work in the Pacific, I know that adult white sharks are capable of living in the middle of the ocean for at least a year and a half,” he says. “They’re much more of a pelagic species than ever thought before, so having that shark out in the middle of the ocean in deep water is quite normal.”
And when white sharks are migrating they are “very opportunistic as far as what they are going to be eating, so they’re going to investigate anything that’s floating,” Domeier says. “That is why that shark was investigating that boat. It could have been a dead whale, which is a huge source of food.”
The average size of a great white shark is around 14 feet, and the maximum length is 21 feet. The white shark in the Atlantic is a “prohibited” species that, if caught, must be released with minimal injury and without removing it from the water, according to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration. White sharks have recently been listed for international protection under the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Flora and Fauna Appendix II. In addition, they are on the International Union for Conservation of Nature Red List as “vulnerable.”
Aware that man has been a threat to the great white’s survival, the anglers made no attempt to interact with it. They just watched. “Nobody fed him,” John Watson says. “Nobody threw anything at him or anything like that. He just did what he wanted to do. When he swam away and went under the boat he made absolutely the biggest mark on my Garmin [fishfinder].”
He says the largest shark he had seen was a 10- or 11-foot tiger. He knew right away that this one was a great white. “For it to be that big and wide it had to be a great white,” he says. “There’s really no other shark that is going to get like that. You never know what you’re going to see when you’re out there. Some guys saw some humpback whales just a few weeks ago.”
John Watson took one other precautionary measure. Remembering a cable television show in which a shark tried to eat an outboard, he cut the engine and raised it out of the water. “I wanted to make sure there was nothing to gain his interest further,” he says.
The shark encounter occurred about 1 p.m., and the foursome fished the rest of the day, all the while talking about what they had just experienced, Michael Watson says. “When I tell people the story, I try not to make it sound like the typical fisherman’s tale, but it really was 18 feet,” he says. “I’m not sure, but it looked like it was 4 feet wide. That was shocking to me — how wide it was and big it was. You see a Mako, and they are long and skinny, but this thing had some girth to it.”
Michael Watson snapped about 20 pictures of the fish. “I am so glad I took the pictures,” he says. “I am 26 years old, and it is something that I will tell my grandkids — this was the day I was fishing and saw a great white shark.”
GREAT WHITES AT A GLANCE
- highly migratory
- average length: 14.8 feet
- maximum expected age: 27 years
- maximum length: 21 feet
- environment: temperate and subtropical waters
- best-known coastal aggregations:
Australia, New Zealand, South Africa, northwest Atlantic, northwest Pacific
- threats: demand for shark fin soup, incidental catch, pollutants, habitat deterioration
This article originally appeared in the February 2012 issue.