FAMOUS TO ME celebrates the notable residents of the internet: charming characters, dedicated professionals, the headstrong, the bold, our true gems. Some of our readers may be unfamiliar with these local personalities, but those of us with the good fortune of knowing them from around town know they deserve recognition for their work, warmth and integrity. If you’d like to nominate someone for this honor, please mail it in. This week’s star: Mary Lee, a shark, in pin drops.
I often feel like a shark attack waiting to happen when I’m in the ocean. I know I’m more likely to be crushed by a vending machine on land than chomped by a great white in the water. But floating suspended in the water, I can’t help imagining three hundred teeth sinking into my ribs. When I first found the live shark tracking feature on OCEARCH.org, I immediately zeroed in on the Jersey Shore, where I swim every summer. That’s where I found Mary Lee.
The sweetly retro name intrigued me at first. The small picture on her profile was nothing more than a blurry shot of her fin, but her length and weight were sudden proof of her terrifying size: a 16-foot-long, 3,456-pound great white. In 2012, Mary Lee was caught by OCEARCH researchers off Cape Cod. A video documenting her capture shows researchers placing her on a raised platoon, tagging her fin with a device resembling a small wifi router, and then sliding her back into the water. Expedition leader Chris Fischer decided to name her after his mother. “I was waiting and waiting for a special shark to name after her,” he told ABC News, “and this is the most historic and legendary fish we’ve ever captured.”
Mary Lee seemed to like the Jersey Shore more than other sharks. On May 8, 2015, she turned up in Atlantic City, whose amusement park lights I can see in the distance from where I swim. The next day she pinged off the coast of Island Beach State Park, where my family and I sometimes drove for a change of pace. Two days later, at 12:06 p.m., she pinged 3.6 miles from where I regularly swim; by 12:45 she was practically on the beach. It was terrifying to know how close she’d been, and even more frightening that she’d gone so close to shore. I could see, from the safe remove of my computer, that she’d circled there for a few hours, then made an abrupt beeline back out to sea.
I began checking in on Mary Lee every six months or so. Go away, I’d plead to the dot my computer screen. During the off season, though, checking induced less worry and more excitement. If there was a shark on the Jersey Shore, I’d feel a pleasantly gauzy sense of fear, like reading the Wikipedia plot summaries of horror movies I’ll never see. If the Jersey Shore was shark-free, I’d search for Mary Lee elsewhere, only leaving the site once I’d been able to track her down. My initial fear was yielding an attachment.
Tracking Mary Lee was similar to the primary way I waste time on the internet — following along as famous people go about their lives. Sometimes I feel a frisson of recognition when the backdrop in a paparazzi shot is a New York street I’ve walked myself. But mostly it feels like celebrities occupy a different space than I do, even when that space is coincidentally the same. When I saw Sarah Jessica Parker on a block I’ve walked down many times, the presence of cameras made it suddenly hers. In the resulting paparazzi shots, I was outside the frame, as if I’d never even been there. As with other celebrities, I tried to imagine what would happen if I crossed paths with Mary Lee. Normally, I’m thinking about facial expressions I hope will telegraph that while I know who the famous person is, I’m not going to make a scene. But I was sure that if I did cross paths with Mary Lee, something worse than momentarily bewilderment would occur. Even the dread of such a meeting felt something like connection.
I might occasionally delude myself that I have access to a celebrity’s mind through their public posts, but I can’t do the same for Mary Lee. I have no idea whether deep, open waters give her a sense of comfort or whether she prefers being close to shore. As a voracious apex predator, I don’t question her tenacity, but I do wonder if she’s ever been frightened, and if so, when. I know where she’s gone and how long she stayed; I guess her movements have to do with the presence or absence of fish. But I’ll never know how it feels to move in the water at her speed and size. I only have her coordinates, points where our lives sometimes intertwined.
I soon discovered that Mary Lee was famous in her own right; she annually made headlines along the East Coast and as far as Bermuda. One fisherman quoted in a story for Delmarva Now said he’d gotten a 2 a.m. call from someone who’d been tracking Mary Lee nearby and hoped he’d fish her out of the water (he declined). “Authorities have no plan in place to protect swimmers from lurking shark,” the New York Post warned in 2015, when she appeared ten miles off the popular Robert Moses State Park beach in Long Island. “She’s the queen of the ocean,” Chris Fischer told USA Today. “She’s a 50-year-old-or-so mature white shark that absolutely dominates wherever she goes.” When I found out she had nearly 130,000 Twitter followers, I felt a weird sense of ownership. How could she mean as much to so many other people as she had to me?
When I pulled up OCEARCH’s website early this summer, I didn’t see Mary Lee’s tracking dot by the Jersey Shore — she must be in the Hamptons, I thought, gleefully. I decided to commit to not checking the site for the rest of the season. For once, good sense won out over irrational fear. With Mary Lee presumably out in Montauk, I resolved to enjoy my summer on the Jersey Shore.
One weekend in August, I was in the water with my Dad when something swam by us one way, turned around, swam the direction it had come from, then turned again and began making its way towards us. We backpaddled out of the water and, slightly panting on the shore, shielded our eyes to get a better look. “Do you think that was a shark?” I asked my Dad. “No, definitely not,” he said, but I could tell by his tone that he was trying to keep me calm. As I walked back to the house, two words popped into my head: Mary. Lee. The unidentified swimming object turned out to be a species of ray whose wings sometimes look like shark fins. Just a ray, I thought to myself whenever a cresting wave took on the appearance of a fin.
More recently, far from the beach and killing time online, I decided to check in on Mary Lee again. I was horrified to find that she hadn’t been traced since summer 2017 — she’d last pinged close to where I’d been swimming months earlier, but there’d been no sign of her since. I was also surprised to find myself truly saddened by the possibility of her death, even when I’d been terrified she’d eventually cause my own.
OCEARCH officials quelled my initial concerns — it’s more likely that the battery powering her tracking device had died after five years of use — then I realized, with horror, that although my near miss with a shark had really been a bottlenose ray, it could have been her. Knowing Mary Lee’s location was a soothing counterpoint to my fear, even though her swimming patterns sometimes aligned with my own. That distant closeness has a more menacing element now that I can no longer find out exactly where she is.
Scrolling through celebrity gossip usually ends suddenly, with the realization that I’m wasting my time keeping tabs on how strangers spend theirs. By contrast, tracking Mary Lee felt productive, protective. Knowing her whereabouts imbued me with a weird sense of power. Not power over her, though at times the view felt a bit god-like. Instead, I felt a temporary power over my own fears, which were tempered by a strange intimacy. In a terrifying but thrilling way, unlike with any other celebrity I’ve “followed,” we shared the same space.