Photograph by Jim Abernethy, Nat Geo Image Collection
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Great whites are torpedo-shaped with powerful tails that can propel them through the water at up to 15 miles per hour.

Photograph by Jim Abernethy, Nat Geo Image Collection
AnimalsReference

Great white sharks


About great white sharks

While the shark in Jaws was inspired by a great white shark in New Jersey, the legendary fish is far less fearsome in reality. As scientific research on these elusive predators increases, their image as mindless killing machines is beginning to fade.

Found in cool, coastal waters around the world, great whites are the largest predatory fish on Earth. They grow to an average of 15 feet in length, though specimens exceeding 20 feet and weighing up to 5,000 pounds have been recorded.

They have slate-gray upper bodies to blend in with the rocky coastal sea floor, but they get their name from their white underbellies. They're streamlined, torpedo-shaped swimmers with powerful tails that can propel them through the water at speeds of up to 15 miles per hour. They can even leave the water completely, breaching like whales when attacking prey from underneath.

Hunting and diet

Highly adapted predators, their mouths are lined with up to 300 serrated, triangular teeth arranged in several rows, and they have an exceptional sense of smell to detect prey. They even have organs that can sense the tiny electromagnetic fields generated by animals. Their prey includes other sharks, crustaceans, molluscs, and sea birds. Larger whtie sharks will also prey on sea lions, seals, and small toothed whales like orcas. The species has even been seen feeding on dead whales.

Shark attacks

Of the 100-plus annual shark attacks worldwide, a third to a half are attributed to great white sharks. Most of these, however, are not fatal. Research finds that great whites, which are naturally curious, often "sample bite" then release their human target. It's not a terribly comforting distinction, but it does indicate that humans are not actually on the great white's menu. Fatal attacks, experts say, are typically cases of mistaken identity: Swimmers and surfers can look a lot like their favorite prey—seals—when seen from below.

Population and conservation

There is no reliable population data for the great white shark, but scientists agree that their number are decreasing precipitously. Overfishing and getting accidentally caught in fishing nets are their two biggest threats. The species is classified as vulnerable—one step away from endangered—by the International Union for the Conservation of Nature.

WATCH: Photographing Great White Sharks off Cape Cod

In recent years great white sharks have been showing up annually in the waters off the Cape Cod seashore, and unlike the great whites of Australia or South Africa, these sharks don't respond to the usual underwater photographers' techniques. They're not used to humans, so a cage won't work. So what's a photographer to do?