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Was it for love?

SCIENTIFIC RESEARCH starts with a question, and the answer leads to more research -- and more questions. So it is with great white sharks living off the coast of South Africa.

Scientists writing in the journal Science this month had wondered how far those creatures roam as they swim up and down that coast and whether they venture beyond it. An international team tagged the dorsal fins of 32 great whites and tracked them by satellite over 15 months.

Although most of the sharks stayed fairly close to home, one female zoomed across the entire 12,400-mile breadth of the Indian Ocean to the coast of Australia, and back again, in a scant nine months. It was the fastest transoceanic trip ever recorded by any animal that makes its home in the sea.

And now the question is: Why?

The lead researcher, Ramon Bonfil, marine biologist at the Wildlife Conservation Society in the Bronx, which owns the Bronx Zoo, said in a phone interview that the most likely answer is the mating instinct, though most South African great whites find love in the neighborhood. He was puzzled by his own answer because the flying shark appeared to be quite young -- the equivalent of ''a 10- or 12-year-old girl" who had not yet gone through puberty.

Bonfil speculated that it may have been making a trial run, preparing for the time when it could mate. He speculated about whether the genetic wiring in some South African sharks drives them to seek partners among their Australian counterparts and whether there is more interaction between species from different geographic areas than was previously thought.

Another question: How does a beast traveling such distances know where it's going? Bonfil said the shark swam directly for Australia and appeared to need to get there ''as fast as it could." He said it swam at or close to the surface most of the way, which may mean it navigated by following the sun and moon.

Bonfil and his team would like to tag 50 more sharks to try to answer the questions left hanging by one extraordinary journey, but his funding has dried up.

''Raising money for sharks is hard," he said, noting that people give money for dolphin, turtle, and whale research but that great whites have an image problem. The mysterious ocean predators are thought to be ''man-eaters" even though they do not hunt human beings and their encounters with people are accidental.

Bonfil nicknamed his swimming phenom ''Nicole," hoping the Australian actress and shark conservation advocate Nicole Kidman might become interested in his research.

Until she or others do, this fascinating fish tale must end a bit like a soap opera closer: To be continued. We hope.

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