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September 13, 2005

Meet the Great White Shark

It’s strange to watch the current fascination with space travel — money’s being thrown at everything from tourist shuttles to a manned Mars landing. Meanwhile, 71 percent of our own planet — the oceans — contains more mysteries and questions and problems than we can ever hope to solve. Earlier this year I saw the ocean explorer Graham Hawkes speak at the TED Conference in Monterey, California (an ocean town if there ever was one); he chastised the many space-heads in the audience by saying “Your rockets are pointed in the wrong direction.” I couldn’t have agreed more: I’d just spent several years reporting on the work of biologists who are studying one of the ocean’s most misunderstood creatures, the great white shark.

For all its media exposure and front row seat in our collective nightmares, the great white shark — or white shark, as scientists prefer to call them — is an animal we barely know. Even some basic information is missing. How long do white sharks live? Unknown, but the best guess is somewhere in the neighborhood of 30 years. How many of them are there? Again, no answers. Like all apex predators, nature only doles out relatively few to begin with, and evidence points to declining populations from there. Virtually nothing is known about their mating process; their breeding grounds remain a mystery (although the Southern California bight appears to be a kind of nursery area); their gestation period is also unknown, although it’s likely to be long, perhaps as long as 18 months.

The white shark is obviously a difficult animal to study. They’re masters of ambush hunting, so hiding is a big part of their survival strategy. And they’ve had plenty of time to get it right: the white shark in its current form has been roaming the seas for 11 million years; its ancestry reaches back some 60 million years, and sharks as a class of animals have been on the planet for 400 million years, predating dinosaurs by 200 million years. As predators, they’re very, very good at what they do. One of the big challenges for white shark scientists is finding their study subjects! There are a handful of places around the world where the odds of encountering these animals get higher, including False Bay, South Africa; Guadalupe Island off the coast of Baja; and spots along the California coast.

Tomorrow, I’m going to talk about a specific shark hotspot in Northern California: the Farallon Islands. At this spooky outpost 27 miles off the coast of San Francisco, scientists have had enormous success studying a very special group of great white sharks. Their discoveries have gone a long way toward changing people’s perceptions of the white shark as a diabolical killing machine. Which is great news, because if ever an animal needed some better PR, it’s this one.