Not many people know that the man behind the underwater cinematography in Jaws, a film which unleashed a tidal wave of shark phobia, is one of the most influential advocates for great white sharks. Perhaps even more surprising is the fact that his passion bloomed when a great white nearly killed him.
Rodney Fox was spearfishing in 1963 off the coast of Australia when a great white shark tried to rip him apart. He managed to fight his way to the surface, where good luck with a boat and a car, and hundreds of stitches, saved his life.[i] Fox’s experience left him afraid, but it also left him fascinated. He went on to observe, study, and inspire interest in sharks during a time when they were considered monsters. Fox pioneered the very first shark diving cage, and his video footage made its way to the big screen, even though his intentions- to spread love for sharks- did not.
Rodney Fox’s story is not unique. There are many other shark attack survivors who, once they learned more about the creatures who bit and sometimes maimed them, became champions for shark conservation.[ii] The statistics support their stance; great white sharks attack humans around 5-7 times per year (with an average of only 2 fatalities)[iii], while humans kill around 100 million sharks per year for shark fin soup.[iv] Adding to the carnage, commercial fisheries are allowed to kill sharks by accident, entrapping them with nets and hooks meant for other species. This extermination of sharks by humans puts marine ecosystems at risk- without top predators, ocean food chains lose their balance, destabilizing the intricate web of relationships that marine animals and plants depend on.
Great white sharks are the ocean’s topmost top predator, averaging 4.5 meters in length. (Whale sharks are larger, but their plankton-based diet is not considered predatory.) Great whites can accelerate their torpedo-shaped bodies up to 50 kilometers per hour, which helps them sink their 300 serrated teeth into speedy prey like seals. But these impressive facts are only the tip of the iceberg.
Great White Shark Super-Senses
A great white’s sense of smell is exceptional. It can smell one drop of blood in 10 billion drops of seawater, even from a third of a mile away.[v] Like other sharks, great whites use special receptor cells on their snout to sense the earth’s magnetic field, helping them navigate on long-distance migrations. In fact, one great white shark holds a record for the longest fish migration ever documented, from South Africa to Australia and back.[vi] Taste receptors on the great white’s mouth and tongue help it identify its prey before swallowing- most people survive shark attacks because the shark realizes its mistake and releases.
When great whites are young, they eat fish like most other sharks; they also eat smaller sharks- and try to avoid being eaten by bigger sharks, including their mother! When mature, they hunt mammals like seals, sea lions, dolphins, and sometimes small whales. Great whites are dark on their backs and light on their stomachs, camouflaging them from above and below. They take advantage of this coloring to ambush surface-swimming prey with a technique called breaching. Starting underneath a seal, for example, a great white swims vertically upward with such power that it shoots itself and the seal out of the water, catches the seal in midair, and splashes back down with meal in mouth. By shaking its head side to side, the shark saws off chunks of meat and swallows them whole. Great whites can launch themselves 3 meters into the air, and witnessing this incredible natural phenomenon has the potential to transform an onlooker into a lifelong shark-enthusiast.[vii]
Reproduction and Lifespan
A pregnant great white will gestate for 11 months and give birth to up to a dozen pups.[viii] These pups emerge from their mother as perfectly formed mini-great whites, about 1.5 meters long, and they swim immediately away from their hungry parent. (Great white pups are no strangers to cannibalism, having feasted on unfertilized eggs within their mother’s uterus before being born.) Great whites can live for 60 years or more, giving them plenty of time to develop their intelligence and social skills. Scientists studying shark cognition found at least one species that learned tasks 80 times faster than rabbits or cats.[ix] And great whites have been observed interacting with one another through mouth postures and body slams, as well as traveling and hunting together in shoals.[x]
Great white sharks are found in all the world’s temperate oceans; however, they’re not limited to balmy water. Great whites have the good luck to be warm-blooded, which helps them broaden their range to colder waters with rich hunting grounds. Warm-bloodedness also gives great whites the power to accelerate quickly and breach. Though they hunt mammals at the surface, great whites can also dive down to 250 meters.[xi]
Prime locations to dive with great whites include the west coast of Mexico, Australia, and South Africa.
In 2010, scientists estimated that fewer than 3500 great white sharks might be left in the wild- even less than the number of wild tigers. While most of the world was worrying about “cute” animals, great white populations were steadily plummeting from shark finning, illegal poaching, by-catch, and entanglement in the “shark nets” used to protect beaches. The shark fin fishery, a huge commercial industry which supplies shark fins to Asian countries for shark fin soup, targets great whites’ impressive fins. After fishermen slice them off the shark’s body, they roll the still-living animal overboard and let it sink to a painful death by suffocation. (If sharks don’t have fins, they can’t swim, and if they don’t swim, they can’t breathe.)
On a hopeful note, interest in great white sharks is booming, as evidenced by the cage diving industry, currently averaging 314 million dollars a year and still growing.[xii] And scientists like Mahmood Shivji in South Africa have started testing the DNA of shark fins to determine which species are being caught by the cruel fin fishery.[xiii] With this genetic evidence, police will be hopefully be able to track down boats which target great whites. It seems that people around the world are becoming more interested in watching Discovery Channel’s “Shark Week” than Jaws. With good luck and a lot of passion from shark-lovers, we may be able to keep these 400 million year old creatures alive on Earth for a while longer.[xiv]
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