Few creatures strike more fear in humans than the great white shark. In reality, great white shark attacks on humans are rare – and it is even rarer for one of these attacks to be fatal. However, the size of the great white shark and its efficiency as a predator add to the perpetuation of this unnecessary fear.
The great white shark averages 4.5 m (15 ft.) in length, but some have been recorded as large as 6 m (20 ft.) long! They generally weigh up to 2250 kg (5000 lb.).
Great white sharks are blue-gray on the dorsal, or top, part of their bodies. This helps them blend in with the bottom of the ocean when viewed from above. The belly, or ventral, part of the body, is white. This makes it difficult to see the sharks from below, with sunlight shining in around them. They have strong, torpedo-shaped bodies and powerful tails that help them swim. Great whites can reach speeds up to 24 km/hr (15 mph).
Great whites use their speed and coloring to help them hunt. They search for prey at the surface of the ocean while swimming below. Once they spot a target, they use a burst of speed to bump their prey while simultaneously biting it. They have several rows of teeth that can number into the thousands. As teeth fall out, they are rapidly replaced by those in the row behind them. These sharp, serrated teeth can be devastating. A single, large bite can be fatal.
When great white sharks are young, they feed on smaller prey, like fish and rays. As they grow larger, they feed more exclusively on marine mammals, such as sea lions, seals and small whales.
The great white is at the top of the food chain and has few threats in the ocean. Only orcas and larger sharks can pose a risk. The only other risk to the great white shark is human interaction. They are sometimes caught by accident in fishing nets or intentionally sought out by sport fisherman. Their jaws and fins are sold for considerable amounts of money.
Not much is known about the mating habits of great white sharks. What is known is that after mating the female develops several eggs which hatch in her womb. The newly-hatched shark pups feed on unfertilized eggs in the womb as they develop before being born. In general, the mother gives birth to a litter of two to ten pups, each of which average 1.5 m (5 ft.) in length. Male great whites reach maturity at 9-10 years of age. Females mature even later, between 14 and 16 years of age. Female sharks are thought to give birth once every couple years, but even that is uncertain.
Great whites spend their time in temperate waters all over the world, although they have been known to make brief trips into colder water in the north. They live in the upper part of the ocean, towards the surface, and close to the shore, where sunlight shines through and prey is available.
The great white shark is listed as vulnerable by the IUCN Red List, but it is on the cusp of being labeled endangered due to overfishing.
What You Can Do to Help
You can help great white sharks by not purchasing great white jaws or items made from their fins.
Great White Shark Distribution
Great White Shark Resources
- The Great White Shark Article by Dr. Douglas Long
- Marine Bio’s Great White Shark Page
- How Stuff Works – Great Whites
- Florida Museum of Natural History’s Great White Shark Page