CONTENT WARNING: Contains graphic images/scenes of caught sharks and shark hunting behaviour.
The great white is a member of the family of the Lamnidae, sometimes known as the mackerel sharks, or the white sharks, although ‘white shark’ is also used interchangeably with ‘great white’. In fact, ‘Great White’ is more of a colloquialism, since there is no ‘lesser’ white to differentiate it with, so ‘white shark’ is the preferred scientific common name. I, however, will be writing this article in the spirit of the great white, and using whatever name I want, when I want, I dare you to stop me.
There, I’ve told you at least something about the great white you probably didn’t already know. Unless you’re a shark enthusiast or marine biologist in which case where were you when I needed help learning all the terms for the different pieces of cartilage in the jaw of Helicoprion?
I’ll be honest, I’ve ‘Lioned’ (I’m verbing it) the great white.
When I did my list of top ten cats I put lions at number 6. Lions are so well known, so well respected, so beloved, so fundamentally connected to human life and culture that by any objective measure they should have been number 1, but that’s why it’s ‘our’ list, not ‘the’ list.
The great white is much the same. It was already a well-known and respected predator before Steven Spielberg’s 1975 invention of the Hollywood summer blockbuster, ‘Jaws’, came out. Formal descriptions of the great white date back around 500 years, but it is believed to have been referenced even earlier than that.
‘Jaws’, though, cemented a legacy, a very unfair legacy, for the great white in popular culture. It is hard to think that the movie is approaching 50 years old, that generations of marine biologists have been attempting to undo the harm caused by this particular presentation, and that the writer of the novel and one of the co-writers of the film, Peter Benchley, later become a staunch shark conservationist in regret at this portrayal that has led to sharks being persecuted worldwide.
It is truly a testament to the power of fantasy, of myth and narrative in human psychology, in human culture, that a mere story is enough for us to decimate populations of an animal portrayed in a fictional story if it is portrayed as ‘bad’.
The thing is, they’re not bad, they’re curious. They just have clumsy fingers. Their fingers are teeth, which is probably why they’re so clumsy. Sharks experience the world with an array of dazzling senses we couldn’t possibly imagine, a sense of smell so sensitive most swimmers are probably protected by the pungency of the perfume or cologne they put on a week before, a sense of pressure, constantly feeling the water around them and where they are in it, the ability to sense the electrical impulses of your muscle movements, every neuronal impulse you fire off, acute eyes to hone in on anything in its environment and all of this information – bzzt – zapped to their brain by every neuron in their body and it tells them to do what?
Investigate, because they’re smart, not stupid.
Do you know how a Carcharodon investigates? Well, we must ask ‘what does it want to achieve?’ Judging by the look of the thing, half the time it just swims around placidly, I’d wager if its senses tell it to investigate something it’s with one of two questions in mind; can I eat it or can I fuck it?
Now the shark’s acute eyesight will tell the shark it can’t fuck you, although good luck stopping a male great white from trying if he’s determined! Even in poor visibility I am going to assume there is some kind of communication between sharks to indicate a willingness to mate. So it’ll want to know if it can eat you. How does it tell that? Well sharks have a sense of taste, too. Maybe you’re flailing around? Maybe you’re giving off the kinds of electrical signals associated with a hopeless piece of meat floating around in an alien environment? Maybe you’re on a paddleboard and it just wants to know what that weird shape is? Stomach contents from caught great whites indicate they eat all sorts of flotsam, jetsam and random things. So it comes up and gives you a nibble…”Nah, tastes like shit…” the shark says as it swims off, leaving you to bleed.
You are the ant beneath our feet to that giant predator in the sea. Much like we often cannot notice the innocent bugs being crushed beneath our trampling heels, being so small and insignificant to us, its perspective has literally zero concern for you or your wellbeing. That’s not because it is an unthinking, unfeeling monster, any more than you are. It’s because you’re potentially edible debris in its environment. You may as well be carrion. You’re nothing amidst those currents and waves. All the fragility of the human animal is exposed out in that ocean. We’re not adapted to it, and other things are.
That shark has no concept you’re made of soft, fleshy stuff. Frankly it doesn’t give a shit, and nor should it. You’re in its demesne, its kingdom, its territory, not the other way around. Persecution of sharks, persecutions of any wildlife, for ‘attacks’ on humans are one of the most disgustingly, obnoxiously insecure acts humans commit.
It’s a fear reaction, and we need to face up to that. We are scared of sharks. They are better than us at something, existing in water. They’re damn amazing at it. In ways we could only achieve by doing nothing but eating, sleeping, breathing, swimming in nothing but water for hundreds of millions of years. We’re scared of how good they are out there. We’re scared how much better they are than us. Humans are nothing if not arrogant. If there is a challenge we must conquer it. Some people see sharks as a challenge. They want to fish a shark to prove a point. They want to kill a shark not because they want to protect people from harmful sharks, but to prove they’re better at killing than sharks. It’s pathetic.
As a result it’s listed by the IUCN as vulnerable. The monarch of the seas, the apex predatory fish is ‘vulnerable’ because people keep messing with it? It makes me angry.
Human bashing over.
So what are we looking at here? Well, it’s the largest known species of predatory fish in our oceans today (well, macropredatory to be specific – as in it doesn’t prey on tiny shit like filter feeding sharks e.g. the basking shark and whale shark. They are both, technically, predatory so there’s a distinction), and what a beast it is. To my eye looking like a cross between a teddy-bear and a sports car, they are the Mary Poppins of sharks – practically perfect in every way.
Averaging 4-5m (12-15 feet) length for a female, 3-4m (9-12 feet) for a male, females have been recorded up to 6m (18 feet) in length. Compared to, say, some whales or even the larger filter-feeding sharks such as the basking shark, it’s a tiddler. But we’re not talking a passive filter feeder. We’re talking a multi-sensory, smart-brained killer, with a mouth full of ever-developing, razor sharp, serrated, flesh mangling teeth.
It is a true apex predator, as far as we know besides humans being dicks the only danger to great whites in the wild are certain populations of orca, killer whale, that have been known to kill great whites. True to intelligent, mammalian fashion they often kill the shark, eat its liver and leave the rest of the carcass. Arseholes.
We’ve said this so many times before but when it comes to diet the great white eats what the fuck the great white wants. Depending on location they may have a prey preference, when off South-Africa they certainly seem to have a preference for fur seals, but they’ll eat fish, other smaller sharks, seabirds, even whales. They have been known to scrounge on carrion, because why not? If there’s a whale’s worth of energy just floating around in the sea why not monch it?
In fact, interestingly the larger the shark the more likely it is to feed on carrion whales. In the first major study of carrion feeding behaviour in white sharks two very important things were demonstrated. One, the presence of a dead whale would attract larger sharks unknown to the researchers (4-5m lengths). Two, incidents of sharks hunting their regular prey, fur seals, were much lower around the times of these whale carcass events.
This would suggest that when sharks get too big to be agile enough to hunt fur seals, they are likely to hunt and scavenge large, cetacean (whale and dolphin) prey. Indeed, based upon tracking data it is believed these populations may patrol in such a way as to seek out weak or dead whales. It also means the presence of a dead whale is really, really good for seals! They get a brief reprieve from the horrifying displays of predatory behaviour to which they are subjected.
You see, this South African population of great whites seem to have their own hunting behaviour, we do not know if it is specific to this population, if it is learned or innate, but we do know it is damn awesome.
The shark will approach the seal horizontally, but from a depth, where it will pick up speed, it will make a vertical climb, accelerating up to 40km/h (25mph), smash into the seal with its jaws (often ‘breaching’ or jumping out of the water as it does so) with the intent of, at the very least stunning the prey, but hopefully doing sufficient damage to it to ensure it gives the shark no grief. The seals might be smaller but they have sharp teeth and claws and healing wounds takes time, effort and energy that sharks don’t want to invest in. This is known as ‘bite-and-spit’. You basically deal a non-lethal, incapacitating or damaging bite and then only actually go in to eat once you know it’s safe.
It was previously believed this ‘bite-and-spit’ tactic was only used on pinnipeds (seals, sealions…those sorts of sea-mammals) but a recent report (2020) shows similar behaviours in interactions between two white sharks and a weakened humpback whale. The sharks attacked the whale in seemingly targeted spots (beside the pectoral fins and on the tail) with a clearly different intent than feeding. This was demonstrated by the lack of sticking-out of the jaw, and a lack of eye-rolling. When eating, sharks will maximise their bite by the protrusion of their hylostylic jaws (remember that from the frilled sharks?) and use ocular rotation, the rolling-back of the eyes, to protect their eyes from any potential harm. By these observations, neither of those behaviours were present in these bites.
What appears to have happened is the sharks were trying to incapacitate the whale, not only were their bites intended to access vulnerable parts of the whale, but also those most related to movement – preventing the whale from escaping. The other intention seems to have been to cause rapid blood loss, further weakening the whale. Eventually, too weak, the whale will either bleed out or drown.
Whilst two sharks were seen performing these behaviours there was no suggestion it was a deliberately coordinated attack, although observations of the carrion feeding, as well as feeding behaviours on fur seals off South Africa do seem to indicate sharks of a certain size have an intra-specific (amongst themselves, only white sharks) hierarchical structure. Attacks on each other seem to be rare, although baby or very small white sharks will sometimes be cannibalised. Otherwise, they seem to organise themselves relatively comfortably into a social structure of size and dominance.
All this leads back to one of my key points about sharks.
Popular culture has depicted them as cold, unthinking, killing machines for so long that it has neglected the remarkable intelligences displayed by sharks. The whale-hunting behaviours do not tell of a cold, bloodlusting killer, but of a smart, tactical predator – indeed tactical is one of the optimum words for sharks. These are not drones, these are elite commandos. Whether instinctive or learned, whether coded or on-the-fly they act with a plan.
The 1999 movie ‘Deep Blue Sea’ posited the idea, with horror, of what if these sharks were smarter?
Smarter than what? For what they do they seem to exhibit an optimum intelligence! Their predation success on fur seals around South Africa is around 50% – that’s a remarkable success rate for any predator, never mind an exclusively aquatic one chasing something that can escape to dry land! The great white shark is smart! It is not a cold, unthinking killing machine.
Remember how I told you sharks have a sense of taste? They have receptors in their mouths for detecting if something is good to eat or not. At the whale carrion feeding events sharks were seen regurgitating certain mouthfuls of food for others. Why would you do you this? There’s only one reason. The reason is to replace a worse mouthful with a better one. Selecting, specifically, for the nutrient quality of your full belly when you have a wealth of riches available to you is exceptionally intelligent.
They also were demonstrated to eat hundreds of kilos in one sitting until they eventually fell into a torpor which is basically all of us at Christmas so don’t judge their intelligence based on that. It’s actually smart for them to do this and it is estimated a single whale carrion feeding event can sustain a large shark for around a month and half. Eating until you’re munch-drunk makes sense for these guys, after all, what else do they need to do and what’s going to stop them doing it?
Well there’re killer whales, but for them we need to switch up our populations. We’ve talked a lot about the white shark population off of South Africa but over the US West Coast and Mexico way is where there’s a lot of interaction with orca. While there is evidence from South Africa and Australia there has been a truly remarkable event observed near California’s Farallon Islands.
In this case, documented in the journal ‘Marine Mammal Science’ in 1999, a pair of orca, identified as CA2 and CA6 of the L.A. Pod, a unique pod of whales notorious for their opportunistic hunting behaviours, had been observed with a seal they had caught. Later on, presumably attracted by the smell of the seal, a white shark approach the pair and the smaller of the two, CA2 attacked the shark. The specifics are unknown, perhaps CA2 stunned the shark with a blow, there is the potential that in a deliberate and intelligent manner that would demonstrate some knowledge of shark biology and behaviour the whale flipped the shark over, initiating a state of ‘tonic immobility’ and left the shark to drown. Either way, shortly afterwards, CA2 was seen eating the shark’s liver and then just left the rest of the carcass.
As has been the case with so many of these shark stories two things strike me. The suggestion of deliberately causing tonic immobility is one. Tonic immobility is a state of temporary paralysis. In sharks it is caused by being upside down and is believed to be related to mating behaviours.
If these whales know they can induce tonic immobility, where and how did they acquire that knowledge? Never mind the cleverness of inducing that state to render a potentially very harmful competitor completely immobile, to the point where it was apparently held in said state for 15 minutes until it had drowned!
But the other interesting fact is what happened afterwards. Reports of sharks, sightings of sharks hunting seals, and secondary evidence of sharks, e.g. bite marks on escaped seals, were significantly lower, despite this being the peak seal season and the time sharks are most likely to be around.
Did something about this event trigger an equally fascinating, equally intelligent response by the sharks to the attack from the orca? Did these sharks literally flee the scene to protect themselves against attack? If so what stimuli, what sensory information did the sharks use to determine the danger? Sharks and orca have been seen together, with no inter-specific competition. We know some sharks have an aversion to orca song. Do great whites fear these noises? Or was there something in the water, something they could smell, can they smell a dead great white? Can they differentiate between a shark that has died naturally and been opened up by scavengers versus one that has been targeted, hunted, by orca?
I guess if I wanted to do anything with this article, besides bump the great white down a peg or two to give it some breathing room from human prejudice, is give reasons why our opinions on these creatures is prejudiced.
Yes, sharks are dangerous predators. Great whites, along with tiger sharks and bull sharks, are most likely to be implicated in a shark-on-human ‘attack’. As I’ve explained, it’s not really an ‘attack’. There is a theory that people diving in pairs prevents the shark from actually killing people, that they can be rescued and while that may have assistance in reducing fatalities I don’t think it reduces fatal blows from sharks. Most people who die from shark ‘attacks’ bleed out, they are not consumed. I’ve explained how, with an abundance of food, white sharks will spit out seemingly less nutritious mouthfuls, they like high-yield food, high fat, high protein, high energy – stuff they can use. Compared to the seals and cetaceans they’re used to eating humans are just skin and bone. We’re not tasty to them.
The reputation of the white shark, though, is undeserved. Divers have swum beside them with no issues, with the sharks barely noticing them. When they’re not hungry or horny they are quite placid. They also exhibit a level of social ordering, of tactical planning, potentially (through some of their hunting behaviours) of learning and of a general level of intelligence beyond what we consider of most fish.
White sharks are truly remarkable and, as I said, by any other measures they can, would and should be number 1 on this list but, I think it’s time we gave the great white a rest. Humans, in their ‘protection’ of ‘their’ coastlines have killed more sharks, more great whites, than sharks have ever killed humans. Even in the most vicious, shark-infested of waters, injury to humans by sharks is comparatively rare. If we made as much of an effort to prevent deaths by preventable disease, hunger or war worldwide as we have invested in preventing deaths from sharks we’d be significantly better off as a species. As I said earlier, our persecution of sharks is little to do with protecting ourselves and everything to do with the arrogant human attitude, the point we have to prove to justify our existence and our ways of life, that we are better than everything.
We are not better than the white shark at doing the things a white shark does. We never will be. We should let that insecurity go and leave those sharks to live their lives. We should leave the ocean to them, they know what they’re doing in it whereas all we’ve ever done in the 25,000-15,000 years of so-called civilisation is overfish them, pollute them and fill them with trash and microplastics.
I trust sharks more than I trust people.
Want to dive deeper into some aquatic shark content?
Our Introduction will give you the basics of shark biology, ecology and natural history.
#10 – The massive, magnificent megalodon – a prehistoric giant!
#9 – The beautiful and quick blue shark
#8 – Known for it’s spiral of jagged teeth, Helicoprion – the Buzzsaw shark!
#7 – The frilled shark, a mysterious living fossil with much to tell us about sharks past.
#5 – The Megamouth Shark – One that tells us more about what we don’t know!
#4 – The Graceful Hammerhead family – Much overfished, and is one a veggie?
#3 – The aparently philosophical basking shark! – Happy just existing.
#2 – The longest living vetebrate on earth – The Greenland Shark