A scientist and a wildlife filmmaker have captured what may be rare photos and video of a newborn great white shark, seen swimming just off the California coast near Santa Barbara. The footage, filmed by a drone last July, is stirring up excitement tinged with skepticism among experts who are eager to understand one of the most enigmatic aspects of these fearsome apex predators: where they start out in life.
“Where white sharks actually give birth to their pups remains one of the ocean’s great mysteries,” Tobey Curtis, a fishery management specialist and shark ecologist for the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, wrote in an email. “Observations of free-swimming newborn white sharks are extremely rare, and any new video or photographic evidence may be very valuable.”
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In a study published Monday in the journal Environmental Biology of Fishes, the team describes the sighting of a five-foot-long shark pup that is shedding a whitish layer. The team argues that the material could be embryonic fluid, signaling a possible newborn perhaps only hours old. Or, they acknowledge, it might be that the young shark has a skin condition.
Getting a definitive answer is nearly impossible given the constraints of observing these elusive animals remotely. But the team was eager to detail their observation in a peer-reviewed scientific journal and perhaps help galvanize the search for more evidence.
“I can only speak from my observations, but this shark was moving very – not erratically, but almost like it was exploring stuff uniquely,” said Carlos Gauna, a wildlife filmmaker known as the Malibu Artist on YouTube and Instagram. He found the shark at the end of a long day flying drones from the beach with Phillip Sternes, a shark scientist and graduate student at the University of California at Riverside. “It looked clumsy, the way it was swimming. It was kind of wobbly.”
But several outside shark experts said they were skeptical about the interpretation that this shark had just been born. Even if that notion is correct, they cautioned that it’s hard to know from a single observation what this sighting means about the species.
“I appreciate the authors getting this out there, but I think they have to be careful about how they sell it,” said Christopher Lowe, a professor of marine biology and director of the Shark Lab at California State University at Long Beach, who was not involved in the work.
Lowe says the animal is “definitely a young shark” but he favors the idea that it may have had a skin condition – and he added that would also be interesting scientifically.
“We don’t often get a chance to look at them, because when they’re sick and die, they sink. You rarely get access to animals with some kind of disease or genetic deformities,” Lowe said.
Despite widespread fascination with great whites, most of what is known about these shark’s pregnancies and births comes from fragmented observations. That’s in part because great whites are migratory and spend much of their lives in the middle of the Pacific Ocean, and historically the technology did not exist to follow them remotely.
“A lot of people go, ‘I thought we knew everything about sharks, they’re on the Discovery Channel all the time,’” Lowe said. However, when it comes to great white pregnancies, “everything we know comes from like eight females … they are very elusive, and they’re very discreet about where they mate and give birth.”
Gauna has learned the habits of great whites by spending thousands of hours observing and documenting their behavior using drones – often showing in vivid detail how close they live to humans.
In the summer of 2021, he noticed something unusual. The southern California coast is known to be a playground for young sharks. But for about three weeks at the end of June and beginning of July, he also spotted some really big, girthy animals. He saw them again the next summer, and again in 2023.
To definitively tell the sex of a shark, researchers look at its underbelly and identify claspers – appendages that appear on male sharks’ undersides. But Gauna suspected these might be pregnant females, so he asked Sternes if he wanted to come out and do some field work for a day.
Sternes and Gauna arrived at a beach near the city of Carpinteria at 8:30 a.m. on a calm, sunny Sunday in July. It wasn’t until around 5:30 p.m., when they were on their second-to-last drone battery, that a small white shark swam into view near a spot where Gauna had seen one of the large sharks dive down out of view of the camera.
“What the heck is that?” Sternes said.
Great white sharks are actually gray on top, so an all-white animal seemed like it might be albino. This one also had rounded fins instead of the species’ hallmark pointy ones – a sign of a young great white.
But later, when they were able to look at the footage in greater detail, they noticed something even more intriguing: The white color was a layer sloughing off the shark.
In their paper, Sternes and Gauna lay out the case that this shark may be less than a day old. For starters, the location is highly suggestive.
Lowe said that in the eastern North Pacific, mature females tracked with satellite tags migrate out to the middle of the ocean between Baja, Calif., and Hawaii. They spend a year or so out there before they migrate back to the coasts of California or Mexico, which are known to be nurseries where young sharks live. Where along that path females give birth remains an open question.
Pioneering shark expert A. Peter Klimley said he proposed that white sharks were born during late summer and early fall in the waters south of Point Conception, a headland in Santa Barbara County, in a paper published in 1985. Now, he said, the pupping area seems to have expanded north.
Then there’s the shark’s estimated size. Pregnant females have sometimes been caught with nearly full-term pups inside, each measuring 4 to 5 feet long. Sternes and Gauna consulted with a colleague to estimate this shark’s size at about five feet, though they noted there are still some uncertainties.
Scientists also know that in their mother’s uterus, shark embryos are bathed in a liquid that looks like buttermilk, Lowe said. Sternes and Gauna suspect the white coating they saw on the young shark might have been some of this leftover liquid.
But Robert Hueter, a senior science adviser for OCEARCH, a nonprofit that supports great white research, said that he doesn’t know of any evidence that this intrauterine milk would form a coating on newborns.
Hueter added that these observations had been presented at a meeting in Australia last year, and that experts there were intrigued but unconvinced that this was a newborn shark.
“With white sharks, we know where the young of the year are, we know where the nurseries are … but where actual pupping is taking place is still undefined,” Hueter said. “Unless we can sample that white film and determine what it exactly is, we really can’t rule out this is an animal that has some kind of skin disorder.”
Other scientists said that documenting similar whitish sharks, or collecting a sample of the film, would help determine what they were seeing.
Gauna and Sternes agree, and Gauna said he has already developed a plan for round-the-clock surveillance this summer around this time frame.
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