What’s So “Great” About the Great White Shark, Anyway?

Don’t you hate it when radio stations play a song that you really like so much that eventually you can’t stand to hear it anymore?  What may have been a legitimately great song gets over-played to the point that its quality becomes diminished somehow.  That’s how I feel when it comes to Shark Week and the Great White Shark.  Is it possible that the perennial hype and focus on this one particular species is diminishing its “greatness?”

But before we go any further, some technical clarification is needed.  Most shark scientists refer to Carcharodon carcharias by its official common name, “White Shark.”  I think calling them “Great Whites” was something that stuck in the public’s mind when that’s how fictional marine biologist Matt Hooper referred to the shark in JAWS.  There is no “Lesser” White Shark, so there really is no need for a “Great” White Shark.   Do you call Great Blue Herons, “Great Blues?”   I didn’t think so.   So from here on out, they are just White Sharks.  If you must, “Great White Shark” is still acceptable, but the “Great White” reference has to go.

Now that that’s settled, what is so great about the White Shark that makes it the centerpiece of Shark Week and so many other ocean documentaries?   Well, you can start by asking anyone who has actually seen a White Shark up close.  They can typically attest to its “greatness.”  Any fisherman who has had a White Shark circle their boat considers the encounter one of the most memorable of their lives.   If they took pictures, chances are they ended up on the evening news.

White sharks have a number of unique characteristics of scientific and public interest.  To begin with, they are the largest predatory fish in the sea (up to ~20 feet in length).  They eat big, fast-moving prey, including seals, small whales and dolphins, turtles, smaller sharks, tunas, and a variety of other fish and invertebrates.  They are also warm-blooded, so can actively hunt in cooler waters than most other sharks.  White sharks also occasionally bite people (averaging 1–2 fatalities per year worldwide), which unfortunately tends to dominate the public and media’s perception of these animals.

I’ve been fortunate to have participated in research on White Sharks off California, South Africa, and Massachusetts, and every close encounter is memorable in some way.   They are just impressive animals.  They make you feel small. They have a presence and air of confidence that is unrivaled in the marine realm.  White sharks can also be legitimately terrifying if you don’t respect them, or don’t have any understanding of their true nature.  An additional bonus for filmmakers is that they can be predictably observed performing dramatic predatory behaviors in several hot-spots around the globe. Therefore, maybe it shouldn’t be a big surprise that they are the superstar headliner of every Shark Week.

A large White Shark a few seconds before it nibbled the propeller of my 22-foot research boat off Point Reyes, California (Credit: Tobey Curtis)

However, does this disproportionate focus on one particularly charismatic species cloud our understanding of other sharks, and marginalize the conservation challenges they face?  White Sharks have a number of spectacular behaviors (as we have now seen ad nauseam on Shark Week), but they are by no means representative of the numerous other sharks in the ocean.  Other species also display astonishing natural behaviors.  Many other species have serious conservation concerns, and could benefit from public support.  As Shark Week has been criticized in the past for a lack of balance in education vs. fear-inducing entertainment, it could probably also benefit from more balance in the species it focuses on year after year.

A school of socially-interacting basking sharks (left, Credit: Wayne Davis, OceanAerials.com) and surface-feeding whale sharks (right, Credit: Steve De Neef) are just a couple examples of other large, charismatic sharks that would make for entertaining TV-viewing.

The White Shark is not the biggest shark in the ocean (the plankton-feeding basking and whale sharks are larger).  Nor is it the most-threatened from a conservation perspective (a recent petition to list White Sharks under the US Endangered Species Act was rejected by NOAA).  The White Shark is actually one of the most highly-protected fishes in the world, and it appears to be responding to conservation efforts in some places.  Contrary to frequent claims, the White Shark is also not poorly-understood.  Far from it.  A quick search on Google Scholar indicates that since 1984, over 500 scientific publications have focused on White Sharks.  The White Shark is now arguably the BEST-studied shark in the world!  Therefore, shouldn’t it be about time to shift our collective focus on to some of the numerous “data-poor” fish species that have legitimate conservation needs?

It doesn’t have to be “Great White” Shark Week! A number of closely-related rays are impressive and charismatic, like this breaching Manta (left, Credit: Brian Skerry, National Geographic) and Smalltooth Sawfish (right, Credit: Tobey Curtis, FLMNH). These remarkable species are considered to have much higher conservation concerns than White Sharks.

Many of us still agree: White Sharks are pretty great in a lot of ways.  They will continue to captivate the public, and legitimate scientific mysteries remain to be solved by researchers.  But there are a lot of other fish in the sea (including at least 500 other shark species) that are worthy of more research and public attention.   Many have higher conservation priority, and could greatly benefit from even an iota of attention on Shark Week and other TV programming.   It is not necessarily Discovery’s responsibility to deliver this message, but it is a tremendous opportunity that continues to be squandered due to the false perception that the US public is incapable of absorbing legitimate educational material.   But unless something changes, be prepared for more and more White Shark shenanigans, half-assed “experiments,” attack re-enactments, and “extreme” encounters, until all of the White Shark’s inherent greatness is diminished to no more than a carnival sideshow.

Although Discovery Channel will argue to the contrary, there is really no legitimate scientific purpose to swimming with White Sharks. It’s showboating for the cameras (Photo credit: Daniel Botelho).

What sharks would you like to see featured on Shark Week?   Or better yet, what other fish do you think is deserving of its own special week on TV?


Tobey H. Curtis
PhD Candidate, School for Marine Science and Technology, University of Massachusetts-Dartmouth

Follow Tobey on Twitter @Mojoshark

References

Compagno, LJV and S Fowler. 2005. Sharks of the World. Princeton University Press, Princeton. 368 pp.

Domeier, ML (ed). 2012. Global perspectives on the biology and life history of the white shark. CRC Press, Boca Raton. 543 pp.

Klimley, AP and DG Ainley. 1996. Great white sharks: The biology of Carcharodon carcharias. Academic Press, San Diego. 517 pp.

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4 responses to “What’s So “Great” About the Great White Shark, Anyway?

  1. Great white sharks are some of the most infamous inhabitants of the ocean. They are portrayed in folklore and Hollywood as giants of prehistoric proportions. This has left many people wondering, out of curiosity and/or fear, how big these marine leviathans really are.

    fishing tips

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