The great white shark is one of the most universally feared creatures in the world. Its intimidating size and powerful bite have captivated the collective human imagination, turning it from a formidable predator into a cold-blooded killer.
Despite its reputation, great whites rarely attack humans, and when they do, it’s most probably a case of mistaken identity rather than a targeted assault.
Although we all know enough about the great white to fear it, not even scientists truly understand this complex predator. It lives a largely secretive life far from the human’s gaze, making it difficult for us to comprehend what really makes it tick.
Let’s look at some of the facts we have acquired about this fascinating creature, including its behavior, diet, distribution, and habitat.
What do Great White Sharks Look Like?
Great white sharks are grey on top and white underneath. This combination of colors is known as countershading and camouflages the shark by breaking up its outline.
Countershading also allows the shark to blend into its surroundings. When viewed from above, it is the same color as the murky sea depths below it. If viewed from below, its white belly means it produces a minimal silhouette against the sun.
Great white sharks have a large, conical snout and a prominent, triangular dorsal fin. A comparatively bulky shark, the great white shark is nevertheless built for speed. Its body is shaped like a torpedo, which enables it to swim at speeds of up to 40 kph.
The great white has large, powerful jaws full of up to 300 sharp, jagged teeth. Its eyes appear black and lifeless but are actually dark blue. When a great white attacks, it rolls its eyes back into the sockets for protection, making them appear white.
Female great whites are larger than their male counterparts, averaging 15 to 16 feet long, compared to the males, who usually measure around 11 to 13 feet in length.
Did You Know: When you compare the Megalodon to a Great White, it was 3 times bigger?
The largest great white on record is a female shark known as Deep Blue. She measures 20 feet long and weighs an estimated 4,500 lbs.
Most great whites weigh between 1,500 and 4,000 lbs, making them the third largest shark in the world.
Great White Shark Taxonomy
All sharks belong to the phylum Chordata and the sub-phylum Vertebrata, meaning they have a spinal cord and a backbone.
Within each sub-phylum there are various classes, including the Chondrichthyes class to which sharks belong, along with all other fish with cartilaginous skeletons.
Did You Know: Although sharks have a spinal cord and are vertebrates, they don’t have bones in their body.
The Chondrichthyes class is divided into two distinct sub-classes, Elasmobranchii and Holocephali. Sharks belong to the first sub-class, along with skates and rays.
This sub-class is then separated into 13 different orders, of which the great white, or Carcharodon carcharias, belongs to the Lamniformes, all of which have five gills and long snouts.
As a species of mackerel shark, the great white is closely related to the Porbeagle and both species of Mako shark.
It is the only remaining species of the Carcharodon genus, which once included the notorious Carcharodon Megladon.
The scientific genus name means “jagged tooth,” while its species name means “point or type of shark.” This could explain why the Australians refer to it as the white pointer rather than the great white.
Great White Shark Characteristics
The great white shark is one of the most successful and powerful marine predators. Certain adaptations have enabled it to achieve this status.
First, the great white is one of the few sharks that can regulate its body temperature.
Using a network of arteries and veins, known as the rete mirabile, the great white can “retain metabolic heat.” This adapation enables the shark to swim much faster than cold-bodied species, giving it the equivalent of a turbo boost.
The second characteristic that makes the great white such a formidable predator is the ampulla of Lorenzini.
Located in the snout and nose of the great white, the ampulla of Lorenzini is a network of electroreceptors that enable the shark to detect electric fields in the water. This network is so sensitive that a great white shark can “detect variations of half a billionth of a volt.”
In other words, it can feel your heartbeat, even if you’re completely immobile.
Another characteristic of the great white is its ability to leap out of the water in pursuit of high-speed prey.
Great whites aren’t the only sharks to breach but are amongst the most spectacular. The highest recorded breach by a great white was captured on camera by the great white expert, Chris Fallows.
He watched in awe as a great white leaped 15 feet out of the water – some 5 feet higher than previously estimated.
Great Whites’ Life Cycle
Great white sharks are viviparous, meaning they give birth to live young. A great white shark begins life as a five-foot-long pup. During this stage of its life, the great white preys predominantly on fish, crustaceans, and other smaller sharks.
It takes around ten years for a male great white to reach maturity, while females can take up to 18 years before they’re ready to reproduce.
By this stage of their lives, they measure between 11.5 and 16 feet. Little is known about the great white’s fertilization process, although it does involve some pretty vicious love bites.
Once fertilized, the eggs grow inside the female’s body for 12 months, initially feeding on the yolk inside the egg. The embryos then hatch inside the mother’s body, feasting on her unfertilized eggs in a practice known as oophagy.
Great whites have similar life spans to humans, surviving for 70 years or more.
Where do Great White Sharks Live?
Great white sharks are highly migratory and have a global distribution in temperate, sub-tropical, and tropical waters.
There are several hotspots where concentrations of great whites appear to congregate. These are located off the coasts of South Africa, Japan, the United States ( Hawaii, Puerto Rico, San Francisco Bay), the Gulf of Mexico, and Chile.
Great whites are also found in the Mediterranean, particularly in the Sicilian Channel, which some experts believe they use as a nursery ground for their newly born pups.
Although the great white appears to avoid the chilly climate of the Arctic Ocean, they have been found as far north as Russia.
Great white sharks utilize a range of habitats, migrating seasonally from coastal waters to oceanic offshore areas. Although they spend much of their time in shallow waters close to shore, they also explore the deep ocean, plunging to depths up to 3,543 feet.
For years, scientists have been trying to make sense of great white shark migration patterns, but without much success. They theorize that the sharks’ movements are motivated by a search for food and mating opportunities but, as yet, “nothing has been proven.”
Researchers tracked one great white making the epic journey from South Africa to Australia and back in a single year. She covered more than 20,000 kilometers, farther than any other known shark.
Off the coast of California, great whites make slightly shorter journeys, traveling around 2,800 miles to the warm waters of Hawaii where they spend several months feeding before returning as the temperatures rise.
Great White Shark Behavior
Although largely solitary, there is little evidence to suggest that great white sharks are territorial. New research suggests that they tend to stay within “eavesdropping distance” of one another to increase their chances of securing a meal.
According to a leading shark behavioral ecologist, Yannis Papastamatiou, by staying close to others of the same species, great whites can “quickly acquire information such as a seal killed at depth by another shark, and this could end leading to an easy meal.”
Sharks can even be quite friendly towards one another, with some forming the equivalent of “social clubs” within which they swim together for hours at a time.
Great white sharks use various different hunting strategies, depending on their prey.
When hunting seals off the coast of South Africa, they use “darkness and depth” to reduce their chances of detection, sometimes diving as deep as 650 feet before racing upward to secure their prey.
This technique is very effective, giving these great white sharks a 48% success rate.
Great white sharks also perform an unusual behavior known as spy-hopping. More commonly performed by whales, spy-hopping involves lifting the head out of the water to gain a clearer perspective of its surroundings.
Although we’ve managed to glean these snippets of information about the species, little is known about the great white shark’s social behavior and even less about their courtship rituals.
What do Great Whites Eat?
Great white sharks are opportunistic predators and scavengers. They aren’t particularly picky eaters and will eat a wide variety of prey to meet their calorific needs.
As pups, great whites feed predominantly on fish on crustaceans and octopus, but as they mature, they seem to prefer marine mammals, including seals and sea lions.
Great whites of all ages are also scavengers and will happily tuck into the decomposing remains of larger mammals, including whales.
Although the great white has a varied diet, recent research suggests that they are selective about what they eat.
A study by researchers at the University of Sydney found that “the diets of larger sharks are higher in fat content.” According to them, older, larger great whites seek prey with a higher fat content to fuel their long migratory journeys.
Did You Know: That Great White Sharks don’t really like human blood? If there is a choice, they will always choose fish blood instead.
The same study also found that great whites spend more time hunting on the ocean floor than previously thought.
The stomach contents of juvenile great whites off the east coast of Australia revealed that, although pelagic fish inhabiting the mid-water ocean make up the majority of their diet, over 17% is compromised of bottom-dwelling fish such as sole and stargazers.
Humans aren’t part of the great white’s diet. Nevertheless, the International Shark Attack File has recorded 351 attacks on humans by great whites since 1580 – more than any other shark species. They suspect that these attacks were exploratory bites rather than full-blown attacks, even though 59 have proved fatal.
What Hunts Great Whites?
What animal preys on Great whites? Great white sharks were seen as the ultimate apex predator for a long time. Nothing seemed to be in a position to challenge them or prey on them, giving them the top spot in the world’s oceans. Then the orca or killer whale decided to assert itself and quickly became “the true ruler of the sea.”
Orcas have displaced great whites as the apex predators in several locations, including South Africa and the Farallon Islands off the coast of California. In both places, when the orcas arrive, the great whites disappear, relinquishing their hunting grounds for months, if not years, to avoid conflict with the dangerous orca.
This shift is changing the global distribution of the great white. Where it was once abundant around Seal Island in the False Bay of South Africa, it is now “completely missing.” Shark specialist Chris Fallows says, “We haven’t seen a great white shark at Seal Island for the last two years — we used to see about 200 different animals every season.”
Aside from the orca, the only predator to pose a threat to the great white is the human. Great whites may be protected, but they are still actively hunted for their fins, albeit illegally. Great whites have also been the target of various culling operations.
Designed to reduce the number of predators close to public beaches, culls have taken place in Australia and the Yaeyama Islands in Japan.
The global population of great whites is now endangered, and according to Sara Andreotti, a marine biologist from the University of Stellenbosch in South Africa, “still declining.”
The great white shark has been unfairly represented in modern-day literature and news reports. Far from being a mindless killer, the great white is a complex, social creature that has evolved over millions of years to become one of the ocean’s most effective predators.
Despite its worldwide notoriety, our understanding and knowledge of the great white remain surprisingly limited. Hopefully, the species will survive long enough for us to gain a more in-depth understanding of this fascinating creature.
Nicky is a British adventurer and animal lover who spends her time exploring the natural world and writing about her experiences. Whether on horseback, underwater, running, hiking or just standing with a fishing rod in hand, she embraces everything her adopted home of South Africa has to offer.