Great Whites: What's So Great About Them, Anyway?

Sharks have an undeniable hold on the public imagination, and no species has been as admired, shunned, and misunderstood as the great white. Our fascination with great whites has prompted scientists to study them more than any other shark, and research has revealed that great whites are indeed quite special. But why are they so notorious, and what’s truly great about them—besides their reputation? 


They’re (in) famous

These sharks owe much of their notoriety to two humans: Peter Benchley and Steven Spielberg. Peter Benchley wrote the novel Jaws, which hit shelves in 1974. The pulpy thriller, set in a beach town besieged by a man-eating great white, was a success, and spawned an even bigger hit with Spielberg’s film adaptation the following year.

Jaws was the first-ever major summer blockbuster. Audiences were hooked by its masterful blend of suspense and special effects (not to mention John Williams’ classic score, which is now indelibly linked with shark attacks). In 1975, Jaws took in over $100 million on a $7 million budget, and its lifetime worldwide box office gross of $475 million is more than $2 billion when adjusted for inflation. Its impact is hard to overstate. Jaws captured the popular imagination, spawning three sequels, countless copycat shark films, and even real-life shark hunts (now outlawed). And at the center of that cultural obsession was the great white shark.

Peter Benchley didn’t anticipate the great white craze. He devoted much of his later career to undoing some of the misperceptions about great whites his book helped create, funding and promoting shark conservation efforts. But his mark on the culture remains, and the great white shark is still a superstar. 


They’re incredible

Of course, the creators of Jaws didn’t pick their subject at random. The fictional great white at the heart of the story is not exactly representative, but real-life great whites are pretty awe-inspiring.

They’re distinctive and striking, with their two-tone skin, black marble eyes, and permanent smiles. Their hydrodynamic bodies make swimming effortless, even graceful. And sharks off the coast of South Africa breach the surface and leap into the air when hunting seals, a monumentally impressive sight. For those who want to get a closer look, great white cage dives are popular tourist attractions worldwide.

Great whites hold many shark records. They have the biggest teeth, which grow up to two inches tall. They travel the longest distances of any shark, sometimes swimming thousands of miles in a year. A female great white holds the all-time shark distance record of 12,400 miles in nine months. And they live much longer than scientists previously thought, almost as long as humans, with one male specimen clocking in at 70 years old.

Unfortunately, they are also responsible for the most shark attacks on humans, which accounts for some of the hysteria. Most “attacks” actually consist of exploratory bites, as great whites identify some objects with their mouths. After the shark has satisfied its curiosity, it relents. The number of actual attacks is tiny, and fear of great whites is born of exaggeration and breathless media reports. Unless you’re a seal, it’s far more rational to be afraid of landlubber “threats” like ladders and vending machines. 


They’re mysterious

All these impressive facts about great white sharks are eclipsed by what we don’t know. They’re solitary and elusive in the wild, and no specimen has ever been kept in captivity for long.

Like human stars, great white sharks play coy about their personal lives. Researchers know very little about their mating habits. Great whites have long migrations, which may be related to reproduction, but we don’t know for certain. Many great whites gather every year at a spot in the Pacific dubbed the “Great White Cafe.” What do they do there? Sophisticated tracking reveals that sharks at the “cafe” dive great distances and return to the surface, sometimes several times a day. They could be hunting, or perhaps performing elaborate rituals to attract mates.

Of course, the great white’s popularity has also been bolstered by a certain annual shark-oriented cable television event. To see this famous and fearsome species in action, tune in to the 29th anniversary of Shark Week, starting July 23rd, only on Discovery.


Sources: Box Office Mojo,, LA TIMES, Elasmo Research, Stanford, National Geographic, PLOS, Wired, Stanford, Elasmo Research, Advanced Aquarist, National Geographic