Newborn great white shark possibly seen in the wild for the first time


A possible newborn great white shark filmed off the California coast near Santa Barbara

Carlos Gauna/The Malibu Artist

A newborn great white shark may have been spotted in the wild for the first time. Although great whites are found in seas and oceans around the world, very little is known about where and how they give birth.

Wildlife film-maker Carlos Gauna and Phillip Sternes from the University of California, Riverside, were filming with a drone off Santa Barbara on California’s coast when they saw a 1.5-metre-long, entirely white shark. This caught their eye, not just because it was much smaller than adult great white sharks (Carcharodon carcharias) that are up to three times longer, but because these sharks are normally grey on top, despite their name, and white underneath.

The pair had previously seen large, possibly pregnant great whites in the area sink into the depths for long periods, and they noticed that this young shark was shedding something from its skin as it swam. They realised that it was probably a pup born nearby still shedding its embryonic layer – something has never been observed before.

Gauna hopes that the sighting will tell us more about the life cycle of the great white. It is generally believed that they give birth in deeper water, but this observation calls that into question.

“Because most of the scientific community believed filming a newborn so close to shore wasn’t likely, I didn’t expect to find anything. But as I always tell people, if you don’t look, you will never know,” says Gauna. “The piece of the puzzle this footage provides does have the potential to change the direction of where we should be looking.”

“Capturing the actual birth is the holy grail of shark science. What I filmed is simply a clue that gets us closer to it,” he says. “Because of the limitations of filming underwater [and] the unpredictability of the event, it’s a tall order to capture the actual birth.”

Charles Underwood at Birkbeck, University of London, says only three or four great white sharks under a year old have previously been found in the wild – they are few enough that researchers have nicknamed them all.

“Weirdly, we know very, very little about them. As soon as something goes into deep water, we really know nothing,” says Underwood. “They’re elusive, relative to our abilities to look through the sea.”

Gauna and Sternes say one sighting isn’t enough to put an end to the mystery, and more work needs to be done to determine if their sighting was typical. But if we discover that coastal waters are important for the life cycle of great whites, politicians should move to protect these areas to ensure the sharks’ safety, they say.

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