Great white shark

The largest predatory fish in the ocean

The Great White shark (Carcharodon carcharias) is a species of large mackerel shark which can be found in the coastal surface waters of all the major oceans. The Great White shark is notable for its size, with larger female individuals growing to 20 feet in length and 4,200 pounds in weight at maturity. We have spent over a decade combined with Great White sharks in South Africa in a unique setting, and in Guadalupe Island, Mexico. Check out some of Harry’s award-winning photos here and check them out in action with this video by Renee here.

There are many Great White shark conservation efforts around the world. Contact us today to learn more about these conservation efforts, and stats surrounding them, including their interactions with humans, provoked and unprovoked attacks, as well as tourism. 

Family: Lamnidae – Mackerel Sharks

Genus: Carcharodon

Species: carcharias

Aesthetic Identification-

Large, heavy sharks with spindle shaped bodies. Great White Sharks have 5 large gill slits, see our slow-motion video clip of their gill slits here. They have a large first dorsal fin with a dark tip. The second dorsal fin and anal fins are small. They have a crescent shaped tail with strong keels on caudal peduncle. Watch the power of its tail here. At the face their eye appears black but is actually blue.

Detail of a white shark eye (left), eye rolled back for protection (above). Also note the countershading which helps camouflage the shark in its environment.

White Sharks are one species of sharks that do not have a nictitating membrane. Instead they roll their eyes in the back of their heads. Kind of like how your child does when you tell her to tidy her room, but with White Sharks it is for protection. They don’t have an attitude towards you.

White Sharks are counter-shaded. This means that they are darker grey on top, so that they blend in with the water or topographical features below them if you were looking down on them, and they are bright white on their belly bottom half, so that when you look up at them they blend in with the much lighter surface above.

Average size

Average Length- 11-21 feet. Males range from 11-13 feet and females from 15-21 feet in length. Baby White Sharks are born between 3.6 feet and 5.2 feet in length.

Average Weight- Most adult White Sharks weigh between 1500 and 2400 pounds. Some females have been recorded at 5000 pounds (2268 kilograms).

Undocumented reports of a female weighing 7000 pounds and 21 feet long; one of the largest White sharks has been making headlines over the past 6 years, named Deep Blue, an elusive female that is estimated to measure over 20 feet (609 cm) long. Deep Blue was identified in Guadalupe Island, and now spotted several times in Hawaii. Jimi Partington, an expert, and long-time identifier of White sharks has been on the hunt for this massive mega-shark (as he calls her). Meet all of Jimi’s sharks right here.

Diver and white shark to scale

Teeth

White sharks go through thousands of teeth in their lifetime. Throughout their life, White Sharks can have well over 200 teeth at one time, arranged in 7 rows of teeth (like a conveyor belt of teeth!). The teeth are described as flat, triangular serrated, razor sharp to a point at the top and are 3 inches long on average. You can think of white shark teeth like a knife and fork: the bottom teeth spear and hold prey whilst the serrated top teeth slice like a steak knife. The teeth aren’t held in to the jaw with roots like our teeth, and can and do shed fairly easily, which is why White Sharks need so many teeth throughout their lives. And after they die, their teeth will be their most likely remnant as the rest of the animal decomposes quickly.

Jaws

 

A 2007 study by Dr. Wroe from the University of New South Wales in Sydney, Australia, used CT scans of a Great White sharks’ skull and computer models to measure the shark’s maximum bite force. The study reveals the forces and behaviors its skull is adapted to handle and resolves competing theories about its feeding behavior. In 2008, a team of scientists led by Stephen Wroe conducted an experiment to determine the great white sharks jaw power and findings indicated that a specimen massing 3,324 kg (7,328 lb) could exert a bite force of 18,216 newtons (4,095 lbf). Check out our video here and see how powerful their jaws are without even exuding much effort. 

Great White sharks are carnivorous and prey upon fish like tuna, other sharks and rays, cetaceans like dolphins, porpoises, and whales, pinnipeds like seals, and fur seals, and sea lions, sea turtles, sea otters and seabirds. Great White sharks have also been known to eat objects that they are unable to digest.

The Great White shark is an ambush predator that also uses its speed and strength. A Great White shark predation will use a combination of stealth, strategy, speed and strength. One example is the powerful vertical breach.

The Great White shark can survive on one seal a week but may have had to compete with another shark for prey around 2.5 million years ago. When Megalodon’s main food supply (whales) began to diminish, the Meg had to settle for smaller prey such as seals. The trouble is that seals are fast and agile, a prey item much more suited for the more efficient Great White shark. Therefore, some scientists suggest that extinction of the Meg could be directly influenced by the Great White shark.

Distribution range of the great white shark

Demographic and Habitats

White Sharks are found in most oceans ranging widely and are amphitemperate. Some known locations as Mexico, Guadalupe Island, Californian Cost. The Gulf Coast, Atlantic Ocean Eastern Coast, African Coast, especially South Africa, the Mediterranean Coasts, New Zealand and Australia, and even the Asian Coast. It was believed that white sharks did not tend to have extremely long and wide migrations, as many of the same animals re-appear across known ranges. However, more recent research has shown that they are capable of extremely long migrations, like Nicole, the white shark that travelled from South Africa to Australia and back, a journey of 12,400 miles, or tagged sharks in the pacific who have demonstrated regular 2,500 mile migrations. There are still many questions to answer, but technology is enabling scientists to track sharks in new and improved ways. It does appear that certain populations of white sharks do not cross, for instance, African White Sharks do not migrate to Mexico.

White sharks live in inshore, shallow water to open ocean and oceanic islands and even rocky reefs from 0-1300 m (4265 ft). Current research suggests that some White Sharks are finding habitats in deeper waters. Some Guadalupe White Sharks are being confirmed of spending much longer periods in deeper waters 400+ feet and further.

Through his stunning photography, back in 2017 Harry has helped document the crisis of the disappearance of the Great White sharks in False Bay and Mossel Bay. Local research and tourism, including Harry himself, has confirmed that Orcas, Orcinus orca (even two specific one’s nicknames Port and Starboard) are responsible for chasing off the sharks. (Check out his photos featured on NatGeo). The disappearance of the sharks impacted the community of Gansbaai so significantly, back in 2017 Harry, as well as several others, searched out the sharks. It was discovered That juvenile Great White sharks found a sanctuary of a fur seal colony in the shallows of Plettenberg Bay (as well as a few other secret locations). The juvenile sharks here can practice and fine-tune their hunting and predation skills, even breaching in shallow water. Contact us further for more information.

Check this video out: PSD behind the scenes with Andy Brandy Casagrande and Jeff Kurr during a Discovery Channel Shark Week production. 

Biology-

White Sharks are warm-blooded, and therefore maintain a high body temperature in cold water. Since they are warm-blooded, White Sharks continuously move. In addition, White Sharks constantly move to keep oxygen rich water flowing over and through their gills. White Sharks are what are known as ram ventilating sharks.

Like several shark species, the Great White Shark’s blood is naturally isotonic to where they live. Their concentration of solutes in the body is equal the concentration of solutes in the water around them. This is why they cannot live in fresh water. Some shark species however can regulate their solutes to match the surrounding water and can live in brackish or even fresh water for periods of time. The scientific term is osmoregulation. Osmoregulation is the ability of an organism to maintain a constant concentration of water in its body, even when the outside environment may cause it to lose or gain water.

White sharks like all sharks do not have a swim bladder, and instead rely on their livers to control their buoyancy. A white shark’s liver weighs roughly 30% of its mass.

Many sharks are known to contain heavy metals in their blood, which can have a negative impact on their health. There is current research surrounding Great White sharks and their resistance to heavy metal poisoning. Dr. Neil Hammerschlag (2019), is studying the concentrations of metals and toxins in Great White sharks. Great white sharks captured off the coast of South Africa have startlingly high levels of heavy metals in their blood but seem to suffer no ill effects. According to Hammerschlag in an interview with James Richardson in The South African; “by measuring concentrations of toxins, such as mercury and arsenic, in the blood of white sharks, they can act as ‘ecosystem indicators’ for the health of the ecosystem, with implications for humans. As top predators, sharks bio-accumulate toxins in their tissues via the food web from the prey they eat.” Read the full story here. 

White Sharks endure a 12-month gestation period in 2 to 3-year intervals. White Sharks have litters of 2 to 10 pups and are nourished by unfertilized eggs during their incubation period. The stronger embryos will consume the weaker. White Sharks give birth to live pups. They are ovoviviparous. However, one group of scientists are trying to prove that White sharks do exhibit viviparous and oophagous reproduction. Review: Sato, K., Nakamura, M., Tomita, T., Minoru, T., Miyamoto, K., and Nozu, R. (2016, Sept. 15). “How great white sharks nourish their embryos to a large size: evidence of lipid histotrophy in lamnoid shark reproduction”.

Once the pup is born, it will swim away in solitude, so it cannot be mistaken as prey as well. One more recent discovery is that some shark siblings, twins and even triplets have been seen growing up together. Scientists are studying juvenile White Shark siblings more closely now.

Scientists first believed White Sharks to live an estimated 30 years. Now, through radiocarbon dating research and other methods, scientists now believe they may live 70+ years. It has been a challenge for Paleontologists in the past to scientifically date how long some sharks live, because White Sharks like all sharks do not have bones. White Shark skeletons are made up of cartilage. While a natural engineering marvel for their swimming design, cartilage does not fossilize well (the teeth are about all that is preserved). Further, counting age rings in cartilage vertebrae requires access to dead sharks, which is impractical without killing an already endangered species, and in any event not enough is known about white shark growth to enable reliable conclusions from this once favored method.

Baby to juvenile White Sharks feed on a variety of small fishes and mature, adult White Sharks feed on a range of larger fish to large mammals. They are macropredators, meaning they primarily hunt during the daytime.

One of the great mysteries scientists have been trying to uncover is where White Sharks mate and give birth. Throughout the past decade, juvenile White Shark sightings have been increasing in the Atlantic Ocean, up and down the East Coast of the United States from Maine down to South Florida. In 2016, OSEARCH discovered one such White Shark nursery near Long Island, NY. Another nursery has been discovered around the same time off the coast of Mexico.

More recently, researchers are studying the DNA of Great White sharks, and it has been confirmed that they have a genome that can repair its own DNA. This astonishing finding is now a front lining study in cancer research. The study is conducted by scientists at the Save Our Seas Foundation Shark Research Center right here at Nova Southeastern University in Florida. Read the story here.

Senses

White sharks have a strong sense of smell. They can detect one drop of fish blood in 25 gallons (100 liters) or water and they can sense even a little blood up to 3 miles (5 km) away. However these headlines do not tell the whole story as researchers have shown that sharks responses to olfactory stimuli are complex and contrary to myth these are cautious and choosy predators.

White sharks also have unique adaptations to their eye sight. Great White sharks have the highest number of cones to rods on any shark. This means they see well in daylight. However, it is confirmed they see well in low light and dark conditions as well. Sight is important to white sharks, and the size and evolution of their eyes reflects this. Part of the retina is adapted for day vision, with a similar cone and rod ratio to our own and the other part for dark/night or low light visibility, with reflective plates making up a tapetum lucidum allowing them to make better use of low light.

But by far the most distinctive of their senses is their electrical sense and the Ampullae of Lorenzini, a sense we do not share. Ampullae of Lorenzini are specialized sensory organs called electroreceptors which are located in the shark’s snout. Ampullae of Lorenzini are small pores filled with an electrically conducted jelly and the bottoms of the Ampullae are lined with cilia, which are little hairs that respond to changes in nearby electrical currents. The currents travel through the jelly to the cilia, which then triggers the release of neurotransmitters in the shark’s brain where the shark is able to asses where the current is coming from. This sensory perception enables them to detect the electric field that is emitted by animals. It is used to hunt prey that may be concealed from vision. They also have a lateral line system allowing the great white sharks to sense water displacement, pressure and direction in their environment.

Behavioral Traits-

White Sharks are intelligent animals that communicate in many ways between other White Sharks, and even to warn potential prey and the few potential predators (mainly humans). White Sharks tell one another they acknowledge one another by swimming directly towards one another and then veering slightly as they pass one another. They also warn one another that they may be too close by pointing their pectoral fins down with the black tips facing out for you to see them. “Hey, back off man.”

Juvenile White sharks have been witnessed and documented being harassed and chased off by large fur seals. In Guadalupe Island, Mexico, individual seals have been observed chasing off individual young sharks. In several locations in South Africa, groups of Cape Fur seals have been witnessed chasing of individual young sharks. Check out our videos throughout this page to see more.

Friend and shark researcher gone cinematographer Andy Casagrande discovered, or more less documented and confirmed, that sibling white sharks do grow up together and seem to stick together throughout their lives (currently only documented through young adulthood, so more research is needed). Andy has documented aesthetic similarities as well. Andy has been studying two brothers in Australia for several years now, watching them grow and studying their behavior. Most recently, he has documented the two brothers using cooperative strategic hunting behaviors, or pack behavior much like the behavior you may see in a pack of wolves in terrestrial mammals. What this means is that whit sharks are ambush predators, but there is much strategy and engage in cooperative hunting together in teams of 2 or maybe even more. We look forward to the future research on this subject.

“Clans”:

Within the “clan” of a White Shark, they have developed a complex social hierarchy system. The hierarchy helps to identify who is bigger and stronger, and who may eat first. This is why White Sharks tend to be solitary hunters. As an individual, they do not have to worry about how much food they can have. But, in an event that a competition must arise, the bigger shark may intimidate the smaller one, or even attempt to come between another shark and its prey. “Clans” describe the phenomenon of the same sharks (it is unknown whether they are otherwise related) appearing at aggregation points, such as seal islands, at the same time and interval. These so-called “clans” range in numbers, but most are seen to have 2-6 sharks.

Breaching:

One of the most amazing methods of White Sharks hunting prey is the amazing breach. White Sharks ambush prey from below by studying it high above (mainly sea lions). Once ready, they swim from very deep and very fast, ambushing it into their massive powerful jaws, while launching itself fully out of the water, and splashing heavily back down. The breaching phenomena was first recognized in White Sharks of South Africa. Now breaching has been recognized in other White Sharks in other areas such as New Zealand. It is known as the Polaris breach. Great White sharks have been documented to perform a polaris breach equivalent to 30 g forces, at as high as 10 feet in the air. What seal could outlive that massive striking force?

Great White sharks don’t always breach. Check out our video here. 

Built For Speed:

White Sharks are design perfectly for speed and power. Much like their torpedo bodies suggest, they are powerful and fast. White Sharks swim on an average of 3-5 mph, with bursts of speed up to 35 mph. One of the largest fish in the ocean is also one of the quickest. Check out these bursts of speed here.