Where the great whites are

January 26, 2013 • 1:25 pm

Alert reader Chris has called to my attention the existence of a site that plots where radio-tagged great white sharks are (Carcharodon carcharias). It’s the OCEARCH Global Shark Tracker, and if you go there you’ll see a map like this:

Picture 1

All the sharks appear to be great whites, and the color of the dots tells you how long ago the location was recorded (orange: 72 hrs.; green: less than 30 days; blue: more than 30 days). Each shark is identified individually and has a name, so you can follow a single one around.

Pity there aren’t many dots, but at least if you’re in Virginia, Georgia, or southeast Africa, you’ll know to stay out of the water.

Looking up these beasts, it appears that their reputation as human-killers is largely undeserved, since we’re not really good fudz for these beasts. Most bites appear to be “test bites”, in which the shark takes a nibble and decides that we’re the shark equivalent of broccoli. As Wikipedia notes:

Humans are not appropriate prey because the shark’s digestion is too slow to cope with a human’s high ratio of bone to muscle and fat. Accordingly, in most recorded attacks, great whites broke off contact after the first bite. Fatalities are usually caused by blood loss from the initial bite rather than from critical organ loss or from whole consumption. Since 1990, there have been a total of 139 unprovoked great white shark attacks, 29 fatal.

Still, these things scare the hell out of me, because their faces look so . . . robotic, making them seem like killing machines.

Here’s a National Geographic video that shows their ferocity, especially when attacking decoy seals towed behind a boat (and yes, I worry that those decoys will kill the sharks if swallowed):

And a bit more information from the Unofficial Stanford Blog:

One of the ocean’s most fearsome predators may be in dire straits. According to a research team led by Barbara Block, Professor in Marine Sciences at Stanford’s Hopkins Marine Station, there are fewer than 3,500 great white sharks remaining in the wild, making them rarer than tigers.

Scientists had previously believed great whites were rare but not endangered because they were spotted in a variety of distant locations. However, according to the team’s unpublished study, people have been seeing the same sharks.

To gather data, Professor Block and her team used satellite and acoustic tracking devices to monitor over 150 great whites in southern California and Hawaii. They found that great whites are remarkable long distance swimmers, capable of travelling 12,000 miles in nine months. In addition, the researchers discovered that sharks spotted in Hawaii were the same individuals observed off the coast of California just six months later.


69 thoughts on “Where the great whites are

  1. How about the Nurse shark? Now there’s a scary smile – and yet they’re only likely to attack when provoked and otherwise just swim along minding their own business and eating fish. Of course provoking it may simply mean swimming alongside it as the croc hunter did with the stingray.

    1. I associate nurse sharks with family Ginglymostomatidae which look anything but fearsome and are quite docile. Perhaps you mean grey nurse or sand tiger sharks (family Odontaspidae) which, despite their fear appearance, are piscivores; they’re also known for intrauterine cannibalism.

        1. They are delightful little critters, aren’t they.
          When I was about 10 or 12 there was a comic strip in one of my rags (I think that I only took the one then – saving money for camping gear), which featured the trials and tribulations of a great white at sea, and I think that I picked up that little factoid from that. Lovely stuff!
          Ooops, here comes my relief!

    1. It shares a planet with humans and is not convenient for domestication (being aggressive and carnivorous) ; therefore it is endangered.
      Sad, but not unduly or unjustifiably pessimistic.

  2. Off the south coast of South Africa I have seen great whites just hanging out in the breakers. Often off the same beaches as the surfers.

  3. Changes the “tracking activity” filter to one year or two years & see the plot of where each has been

  4. We need to put better controls on ocean fishing because the animals at the top of the food chain are suffering.

  5. Sad fact is, there are simply too many Homo sapiens on the planet and the entire planetary ecosystem is collapsing under the load, great whites included, along with hedgehogs, water voles, marbled murrelets, burrowing owls, the California condor, and much else.

    Just wait until Marburg virus, lassa fever, ebola, HIV, and ordinary influenza hybridize. Millions of years from now, paleontologists will wonder what caused the total demise of this strange elongated primate overnight.

      1. They will most likely be members of cruel, rarely-seen animal families known as Rothschild and Rockefeller.

    1. I agree. Wasn’t it Isaac Asimov who said: “Any woman who intentionally has more than two children commits a crime against humanity.”
      It’s just pure selfishness. Of course, most people are more concerned about what they CAN do and not what they OUGHT to do, what is the RIGHT thing to do. They figure they’re so damn special that they’ve just got to produce a whole bunch more copies of themselves.
      One child born to a middle class family in a modern western country probably will consume more resources than entire African villages over the course of his/her life.

  6. Noticeable lack of Australia on that map.

    Believe it or not, in addition to rays, jellyfish, saltwater crocodiles, blue-ringed octopus and dangerous currents all trying to kill our pale, juicy tourists we also have giant ravenous sharks.

    1. You forgot the stone fish and sea snakes : )

      And when they get back to shore there are cassowaries, funnelweb spiders, brown snakes (and many other delightfully poisonous species), kangaroos, platypuses (one of the few mammals to produce venom, but then, it lives in Australia, what would one expect?). Oh yeah, and now cane toads.
      Have I missed anything? 😉

      1. I hadn’t realized that cassowaries were dangerous. Thanks for the heads up. I looked them up on wiki. I think I’ll stick with chickens for the moment.

        What about emus, are they dangerous as well? I do have dreams of rearing emus one day, please don’t shatter them…

        1. The answer to ‘are emus dangerous’ seems to be ‘not particularly’ (though they are big strong birds, you wouldn’t want to piss them off). Cassowaries, on the other hand, are reputed to be permanently pissed off.
          (That’s Aussie/Kiwi slang for ‘extremely annoyed’, by the way).

  7. Ah ha! So one cannot blame Great Whites for their attacks on humans. Who is to blame? According to the video, it is:

    Saint Ampullae of Lorenzini.

    Knew it. Damn Catholics. Once again, religion poisons everything.

    (Wait… what? Oh. Sorry.)

    1. I’m with Diane, broccoli dipped in sour cream is yummy! When I met the spousal unit, there were many foods she wouldn’t consume. I convinced her that it’s all in the way the food is prepared (she never thought she’d eat mushrooms for example, now she is crazy about them). She also hated beer, but what she really hated is what some Americans call beer: Bud, Coors, etc. Now I can’t keep beer in the fridge, because she can take down a microbrew like a lion takes down an antelope.

    2. Do you perhaps live outside North America? IIRC all the people I’ve encountered who said they hated broccoli were Americans. Here in the Netherlands broccoli is one of the very few vegetables my children do eat, and I suspect American broccoli is different.

      I guess it’s something like apples. In America, apples seem to be grown for appearance, not taste. The apples I tried in America and Canada tasted terrible compared to what we get here.

      1. My Euro-toddler loves broccoli, too, but then he also eats any other vegetable, with the exception of asparagus right now, not sure why.

        I get the impression that in the US kids are almost expected to hate broccoli, spinach, and the like. Cartoons and books often portray kids being forced to eat vegetables and hating it (Curious George and the Boynton books come to mind). Even George H. Bush, the better one of the Bush presidents (that’s a bit like saying that John Paul II was the best Polish pope ever), once declared his hate of broccoli IIRC, which was quite weird.

  8. They really are the most magnificent of creatures. I’ve always had a fascination with Great Whites in particular. It’s horrible that things like shark fin soup and chinese “medicine” is playing a big role in dwindling shark populations.

    1. How about including Perlemoen (abalone) and Rhino horn to the list of Far East “medicines” that have resulted in the decimation of the first species and a price that exceeds gold per ounce for the second…

  9. I share your shark phobia. Great whites are seen a lot around Monterey Bay, where I live, though the attacks that happen tend more often to be around Half Moon Bay. Their presence cuts into my enjoyment of being in the ocean. The risk is tiny, even among those in the ocean with them, but there is something about dangling your legs into the blackness where something just might bight them off that makes it hard to keep a detached statisticians view of them.

  10. I still feel mildly ill when I recall a painfully vivid nightmare I had as a child (probably JAWS-induced stupidity) where I was on my grandfather’s boat dock on Lake of the Ozarks and a Great White breaks through the water in the middle of where the boat lift is and I feel myself flying upwards above the shark, looking down into that great gaping maw, much like the pic you posted, but much larger. The fear and adrenalin still stirs in the pit of my stomach when I think of it, and it was just a stupid nightmare! But I still have issues swimming in lakes, can’t go deeper than my knees in the ocean, and even feel the panic well up inside me when I’m alone in a swimming pool! but I do find them to be such beautiful creatures, in spite of my ridiculous movie-induced mental trauma.

    1. I have often thought someone should file a class action suit against Spielberg for ruining the ocean for a whole generation of kids. 😉

  11. I have a question for the scientists who work with Great whites:-
    I live in Cape Town and surf around the Cape which is a Great white hot spot. I’ve had the odd encounter with sharks in my time. There is a serious conflict going on here at the moment between the surfers and what are known as shark chummers.Shark chummers make money taking tourists out to where they can find the most sharks and feed and throw bait in the water. The tourists go down in cages to watch the sharks ravaging stuff.

    The issue arises when surfers blame the shark chummers for the rise in shark attacks. The shark chummers say there is no scientific evidence linking the chumming to the attacks. Some studies are being done.

    My question is why does one even need to get scientific about this?! Isn’t it common knowledge, based on thousands of years of experience that wild animals become pests, and even dangerous, depending on the animal, if you feed them or just leave food lying around? Think of pigeons, ants, flies, bears, wolves, baboons, etc. Also here in the Cape, the Chakama baboon has become a very dangerous pest and one doesn’t need to do much science to link the problem to tourists feeding them.

    Now, I have no doubt that getting at the problem in a proper, systematic, scientific way is much better than relying anecdotal evidence – especially when it comes to the specifics of how one would solve the problem, but I don’t see how the chummers can defend themselves, keep at it on the basis of there being no scientific evidence. Does the immense weight of experience with other animals count for nothing? Is t not common sense to not feed the wild animals?

    1. Scientists who work with great white sharks are very rare, there might not be any here.

      I agree with you, from my uninformed perspective, that it goes against common sense. All the parks in the U.S. go out of their way to keep you from feeding bears. Bears don’t want to eat people either, but if you train them to hang around people hoping for food, you are increasing the frequency of bear-people encounters and so the frequency of attacks. If people don’t feed bears, bears tend to stay well away from people and there are fewer problems. Maybe fish are different somehow, but it certainly seems that the first hypothesis one would adopt would be that it’s just like bears: train them to be around people, you will increase the frequency of encounters, including bad encounters.

      What probably works in the chummers favor in this argument is that shark encounters are so very rare. If you double the frequency of a very rare event, it’s still a very rare event.

      1. Good point about the rarity. I always wonder about how many times a shark might have swum unnoticed right under me.
        By the way, once had a juvenile Southern right swim under me within a few meters. I stuck my head in the water and there was this huge cow-like eye staring back at me. It swam around for a while check the surfers out. In another incident, this time with an adult, I heard a shout a turned to see someone scrambling and falling off a tail while his board fell off the other side. The whale had swum under him and literally lifted him out the water on its tail. He was lucky his leash didn’t get caught around the tail.

        Anyway, given the weight of experience with wild animals in general, I’m not prepared to give the shark chummers time to await sophisticated proof that actual feeding or associating of food with people does or doesn’t lead to attacks. And given the nature of the predator, I think that is reasonable.

    2. Also living in SA and working in Marine Science. I don’t work on sharks but as a diver and interested party I’ve chatted to a few people who do. I’m certainly not one to defend shark baiting, I am personally against it, but the situation is not as simple as it seems. It is illegal to “chum” sharks (whether GW down in the Cape or Tigers and Zambezi’s/Bull sharks in KZN). You are however allowed (under permit) to “attract” them with bait such as fish-oil or decomposing fish in an inaccessible container. They aren’t allowed to be fed so, the argument goes, don’t associate feeding with humans. The research has been inconclusive as to whether they is a link between shark attacks and baiting but it is undeniable that there is significant changes in shark behaviour and conditioning going on. I personally am not in favour of it and treasure the sightings I’ve had on ‘regular’ dives – no GW as yet, but Zambezis, Raggies, hammerheads, Oceanic Blacktips, etc – beautiful creatures. The real bastards in South Africa are the “Sharks Board” who are allowed to slaughter hundreds of sharks every year – along with significant numbers of dolphins, turtles and other harmless by-catch – with their nets and drumlines in the name of “protecting the public”. This despite the GW being a critically endangered and legally protected species in South Africa. Check out: http://www.thedivesite.co.za/blog/4

      1. Yes, I’ve heard about the changes in shark behaviour, though I’ve also heard it said that still too little is known. I don’t actually care too much for the details though. Again, the weight of common sense experience, coupled with the size and ferocity of the predator …

        I don’t understand why the Sharks Board don’t use some kind of radar linked to an alarm, or even a control centre. I think nowadays, resolution is high enough to distinguish. It would surely be lower maintenance and cheaper in the long run.

      2. Another experience I had while surfing up the West coast just North of Blouberg:-
        I saw a shark fin pop out the water about 10m further out going parallel to the coast. As I turned to scratch for the shore it rose some more out of the water and it kept rising out of the water until it was about a metre out and bending over under its own weight! I only realised it must have been a basking shark when I got to the shore. My heart was going like steam train.

    3. The two issues I’m aware of with regards to feeding a wild animal are 1) that it attracts more animals into an area than would normally be there and 2) that the animals begin associating humans with food and lose their fear of humans. I’m sure there’s more issues than that but those are the two I know about.

      Issue 1 is almost certainly going to be true, and I’d say that GWs do appear to exhibit enough intelligence that issue 2 could be as well.

      Bull sharks have been documented waiting under boats for fishermen to bring in their catches before stealing- certainly something they learned to do. Great whites have multiple types of seal-hunting techniques that they’ve been recorded using based on the underwater layout of an area- their well known breaching attack is employed in deep water locations like South Africa, while they use different tactics in shallower areas. They appear to have at least some capacity to learn, which may cause them to begin associating boats or divers with food.

      1. That’s interesting info to learn, thanks.

        In general, one might think that being able to associate food resources with certain reliable environmental clues would be so adapative that it might not even require any learning, per se. More of an automatic association, perhaps, sub-conscious as it were.

      2. Some friends of mine once told me they were paddle-skiing at Muizenberg on the False Bay coast (False Bay and surrounds has greatest concentration of great whites) when they spotted a shark. They immediately caught a wave in and when they got into shallow water, they hopped off their skis and walked, dragging their skis. When they turned around, there was the flipping huge mother-f … lurking half out the water just a few meters back. It had to struggle a bit in the shallow water to turn around and head back out.

  12. The “test bite” is part of the shark’s foraging mode even with preferred prey. When a shark hits a seal, that first bite might not kill the seal, but it is severely maimed. The shark will often then swim off and wait for the prey to bleed to death before coming back up to finish the meal.

    Or so I learned from a Great White shark specialist at Bodega Marine Laboratory 20 years ago.

    1. Yeah. Seeing all the one legged surfers in the newspapers over the years hasn’t made it seem a lot less scary that they weren’t eaten.

      1. Yeeears ago, early in the morning, my buddy and I pulled into the parking lot at the surf somewhere and there was one of those 60’s, VW “sin bin”-style panel vans there already. The van was bouncing up and down quite hectically with lots of grunting and groaning coming from inside. We assumed the obvious but after a few minutes the door slid open and a one-legged surfer hopped out, already in his wetsuit.

        We found out later, though that he’d actually lost his leg to cancer and had not lived much longer.

  13. JAWS!!!! This movie is what has put the Great White shark on the map so to say. Most of the bites that happen are because the shark mistakes the person for a seal. Especially surfers, they show a lot of the same characteristics of seals when they are on their boards.

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