Drone footage captured off the coast of Southern California has potentially unveiled a groundbreaking discovery: the first-ever glimpse of a newborn great white shark in its natural habitat.
(TOP BANNER IMAGE: Carlos Gauna/The Malibu Artist)
The remarkable sighting occurred on 9 July 2023, approximately 400m (1,300ft) off the shores of Carpinteria, California. Wildlife filmmaker Carlos Gauna and Phillip Sternes, a doctoral student in the Department of Biology at the University of California Riverside, stumbled upon the extraordinary sight while filming aerial footage.
Measuring 1.5m (5ft) in length, the juvenile white shark immediately caught the attention of Gauna and Sternes due to its pale coloring, a departure from the typical gray dorsal and white ventral coloring of adult great whites. Upon closer examination of the drone footage, they observed a thin, white film sloughing off the shark's body as it swam, leading them to believe it was shedding its embryonic layer.
According to Sternes, this shedding process is indicative of a newborn white shark.
The duo documented their findings in a study published in the peer-reviewed journal Environmental Biology of Fishes, suggesting that the shark's unusual colouring could be attributed to materials ingested in utero, including uterine milk secreted by the mother.
While some speculate that the shark's whitish hue could be due to an unknown skin disorder, Gauna and Sternes maintain that the most plausible explanation is that they witnessed a newborn great white shark in its natural habitat—a first in scientific observation.
The sighting has sparked excitement among marine biologists and shark researchers, with Gavin Naylor, director of the Florida Program for Shark Research at the University of Florida, describing it as “highly speculative” yet intriguing. Nicholas Ray, a researcher at Nottingham Trent University, hailed the observation as “hugely significant,” suggesting that it could revolutionize understanding of the elusive reproductive cycles of this endangered species.
Likely born in shallow waters
The proximity of the sighting to the coast suggests that the shark pup was likely born in shallow waters, which is the case with many other species of shark. However, some researchers believe that great whites are born farther out at sea. While the exact birthing process was not observed, experts speculate that the young shark's presence supports the hypothesis that great whites give birth in coastal waters. Indeed, the researchers noted pregnant great white sharks in the area.
“It has been hypothesized by other researchers that white sharks are born in shallow, coastal waters in this region, but never observed,” said Greg Skomal, senior fisheries scientist at the Massachusetts Division of Marine Fisheries and author of the book, Chasing Shadows: My Life Tracking the Great White Shark.
“While the presence of this young white shark in this area supports this hypothesis, the actual birth was not observed. We cannot rule out that the shark, which is quite mobile, could have moved a great distance from the birthing area. Regardless, this is a very exciting observation.”
However, further investigation and evidence are required to confirm the findings. Despite this, the utilization of aerial drones in shark research has provided valuable insights, offering scientists a new perspective on these enigmatic creatures and their behaviour in the wild.
About the author
Ethologist Ila France Porcher, author of The Shark Sessions and The True Nature of Sharks, conducted a seven-year study of a four-species reef shark community in Tahiti and has studied sharks in Florida with shark-encounter pioneer Jim Abernethy. Her observations, which are the first of their kind, have yielded valuable details about sharks’ reproductive cycles, social biology, population structure, daily behaviour patterns, roaming tendencies and cognitive abilities. Please visit: ilafranceporcher.wixsite.com/author.