Why Great White Sharks Are Still a Mystery to Us

Meeting a great white shark in the wild is nothing like you expect it would be. At first glance it’s not the malevolent beast we’ve come to expect from a thousand TV shows. It’s portly, bordering on fat, like an overstuffed sausage. Flabby jowls tremble down its body when it opens its mouth, which otherwise is a chubby, slightly parted smirk. From the side, one of the world’s greatest predators is little more than a slack-jawed buffoon.

 

It’s only when the underwater clown turns to face you that you understand why it’s the most feared animal on Earth. From the front its head is no longer soft and jowly but tapers to an arrow that draws its black eyes into a sinister-looking V. The bemused smile is gone, and all you see are rows of two-inch teeth capable of crunching down with almost two tons of force. Slowly, confidently, it approaches you. It turns its head, first to one side and then the other, evaluating you, deciding whether you’re worth its time. Then if you’re lucky, it turns away, becoming the buffoon again, and glides lazily into the gloom.

There are more than 500 species of sharks, but in popular imagination there’s really only one. When Pixar needed an underwater villain for its animated film Finding Nemo, it didn’t look to the affable nurse shark or the aggressive bull shark. Not even the tiger shark, which would be more appropriate in Nemo’s coral-reef home. It was the great white shark—with its wide, toothy grin—that was plastered on thousands of movie billboards across the world.

The great white shark is the ocean’s iconic fish, yet we know little about it—and much of what we think we know simply isn’t true. White sharks aren’t merciless hunters (if anything, attacks are cautious), they aren’t always loners, and they may be smarter than experts have thought. Even the 1916 Jersey Shore attacks famously mentioned in Jaws may have been perpetrated by a bull shark, not a great white.

We don’t know for sure how long they live, how many months they gestate, when they reach maturity. No one has seen great whites mate or give birth. We don’t really know how many there are or where, exactly, they spend most of their lives. Imagine that a land animal the size of a pickup truck hunted along the coasts of California, South Africa, and Australia. Scientists would know every detail of its mating habits, migrations, and behavior after observing it in zoos, research facilities, perhaps even circuses. But the rules are different underwater. Great whites appear and disappear at will, making it nearly impossible to follow them in deep water. They refuse to live behind glass—in captivity some have starved themselves or slammed their heads against walls. (Several aquariums have released them for their own safety or because they were attacking tank-mates.)

Yet scientists today, using state-of-the-art technologies, may be on the verge of answering two of the most vexing mysteries: How many are there, and where do they go? Unraveling these mysteries could be critical to deciding how to protect ourselves from them and them from us. When we finally see the great white clearly from all angles, will the world’s most fearsome killer deserve our fear or our pity?

A 24-foot fishing boat sits just off the southern tip of Cape Cod, Massachusetts, on a perfect summer afternoon. The passengers—three scientists, two paying customers, two journalists, and the boat’s captain lounge on the seats, looking off toward Nantucket. The voice of a spotter pilot flying 1,000 feet above breaks out over the radio in a sharp New England accent. “We’ve got a wicked nice shark over here to the south!”

Fisheries biologist Greg Skomal perks up. He’s standing five feet off the bow on the pulpit, a fenced-in walkway resembling a pirate’s plank. If this were a Hollywood movie, he’d have a harpoon and a peg leg. Instead he carries a GoPro camera attached to a 10-foot pole. He grins like a little kid as the captain guns the engine.

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