Updated at 10:15 a.m. ET on March 26, 2021.
A dead whale can mean many things, but to sharks, it means a feast. This is the scene Chip Michalove encountered on March 4, when he saw the dead right whale bobbing in the ocean, getting torn to pieces by great whites. Even he, a South Carolina fisherman who has caught and released enough sharks to be nicknamed the “Shark Whisperer,” had never seen a feeding frenzy like it.
“It was a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity,” Michalove told me. When we spoke four days later, he said he hadn’t slept since. “It was wild,” he said, his voice tired but still full of awe. For hours, he watched great white sharks, one after another, circle the whale and circle his boat.
Michalove had heard of dead whales being shark magnets, and he had waited years to see one for himself. When he heard about this one, he put together a crew and sailed out from Hilton Head, South Carolina. They weren’t sure what to look for at first—birds? A large black mass? Then they saw it and, unmistakably, they smelled it. “The smell was horrendous. It’s indescribable, like nothing I’ve ever smelled before,” he said. Most of the tail was gone and pieces of blubber were missing.
But the scene looked otherwise calm until they heard the first big splash. There it was, a 12-foot great white shark ripping off a hunk of blubber. Blubber is not easily tearable, and even with their sharp teeth, sharks have to thrash from side to side to get a piece. One shark would come to feed, then another. They took turns ripping pieces off the carcass.
Michalove’s crew stayed out all day; they saw at least seven individual sharks, and he guesses about 15 total were swimming in and around the area. “It's one thing to go out and hook one a day. It’s another thing to show up and you’ve got multiple great white sharks circling the boat all day long,” he said. They hooked and tagged two of the sharks for research. (He has such a reputation for finding sharks that biologists in Massachusetts have sought out his help.) The tags track the sharks through acoustic listening stations and satellites. Sharks that Michalove had previously tagged in South Carolina have been tracked hundreds of miles north, in New England, and south, in the Gulf of Mexico.