The great whites – the misunderstood ocean’s predator


Brought into the spotlight in the movie Jaws, and marked by the Discovery Channel’s Shark Week, great white shark is among the most dangerous creature in the sea, which is a true fact. But the bloodthirsty image of this magnificent fish is mostly dreamed up in the movies and for television ratings. In reality, great white attacks on humans are rare – and it is even rarer for one of these attacks to be deadly. According to the International Wildlife Museum, the chances of getting bitten by one are only one in 3.75 million. Sharks, like other fish, will exhibit a behaviour called test biting. Basically, they were interested in what they saw and thought it might be their preferred prey. On extremely rare occasions, sharks attack on us, human, will happen when the shark thinks the human silhouette is a prey. After an initial test bite and the shark discovers it is not a food source, they will quickly retreat; we are not specifically targeted by sharks simply because we have too many bones for them to digest and they much prefer large, fatty animals like seals or sea lions. That is why fatalities from shark bites are so rare (most fatalities are caused due to blood loss from an initial test bite). Sharks by nature are not very territorial, even when we swim in close proximity to them. According to the BBC, the great whites are responsible for just five to 10 attacks per year. In the Mediterranean Sea, there have only been 31 confirmed attacks against humans in the last two centuries, most non-fatal. However, the size and the rows of up to 300 serrated, triangular teeth of the great white shark and its efficiency as a predator add to the perpetuation of this unnecessary fear.

As one of the oldest and most adaptable predators in the animal kingdom, the white shark was not always known as Carcharodon carcharias. Since 1758, when it was first named Squalus carcharias, this species has been assigned a variety of scientific names, which have since been synonymized. The genus name Carcharodon is derived from the Greek karcharos = sharpen and odous = teeth. The species name carcharias, also translated from Greek, means point or type of shark, leading to their other common names, white pointer. The name “great white” comes from their snow-white ventral sides; however, the dorsal sides of their bodies are not white. In fact, the coloration of the great whites’ top portions is usually grey in order for them to blend in with the seafloor, but they can also be dark blue, brown or black. They can also be identified by their typical torpedo-shape, aiding them with efficient swimming skills; these exceptional swimming abilities are only heightened with their powerful tails, which can propel them through the water at speeds of 15 mph (24 kmph). It is awesome that these fish are such great swimmers considering how heavy they are; their livers alone can take up 24% of their body weight. As one of the largest sharks in the ocean, measuring up to 6.5 meters (more than 21 feet) is not uncommon; the largest great white ever measured was over 7 meters long (23 feet). And they can weigh 2 or even 3 metric tons in weight. Female white sharks are typically longer than males.

Another incredible feature of the great white is just as awesome and helpful as their mouths. Their sense of smell is so unbelievably acute, that they have the ability to detect a single drop of blood in 25 gallons (100 L) of water. Not only that, but they can sense blood in the water up to 3 miles (5 km) away. They can also sense animal generated electromagnetic fields. According to National Geographic, they use their strong sense of smell to detect blood using an organ called the olfactory bulb. Great whites are considered social creatures that travel in a group called a school or a shoal. They love the coastal areas in all oceans from all over the world. Although they have been known to make brief trips into colder water in the north, they typically live on the outskirts of shore waters where sunlight shines through and prey is available. Their preferred water temperature is from 15C to 24C (59F to 75F).

The great white is at the top of the food chain and has few threats in the ocean. Killer whales (Orcinus orca) and larger sharks pose the only real predators for an adult white shark. It has been suggested that killer whales may target white sharks for their fat rich livers. Human, on the other hand, capture too many great whites, through targeted fisheries or accidental catch in other fisheries. Great whites are very curious and the most so-called “attacks” on human appear to be motivated by curiosity rather than a desire to feed. Ironically, the great white is far more threatened by us than we are of them. Although great whites have little commercial value, fishing for these sharks became a popular sport with big game fish anglers. The fearsome reputation of the great white has given it almost legendary status as an apex predator, and they are often hunt for sport fisheries for trophy collectors or aquarium display. The flesh is often used for human consumption, the skin for leather, the liver for oil, the carcass for fishmeal and the fins for shark-fin soup. Great whites are known to be a naturally rare species, near the top of the coastal marine food web throughout its range, so accidental or purposeful pressure from us can be particularly risky. Throughout much of its range, great whites have been given some or complete legal protection, but some catch continues to occur. According to the IUCN, great white sharks are vulnerable to extinction, which generally means they are likely to become endangered unless circumstances improve. Other threats to the great white shark include degradation of nursing grounds and media campaigns to kill the sharks after a biting incident. Some people have a negative opinion of great whites; they are afraid of them. Incidents of shark attacks have been ingrained in the public conscious, and as a result, most are careless about the species demise.

It may be harder to bring persistent efforts for a razor-toothed, underwater predator that, thanks to Steven Spielberg, still gives nightmares about swimming in the ocean. But the great white deserves conservation as we are, after all, responsible for endangering them. There is not a lot of available information regarding the actual population of these sharks, but it is believed by some scientists that there are less than 10,000 left in the world. We can only hope that this problem is soon resolved as they play a very important role in the fragile aquatic ecosystem.

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