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.