White Sharks—A Respectful Coexistence
To many, white sharks are “the fish you love to hate,” the source of a shuddering primal panic. To others, they are objects of fascination. To shark scientists, and to Greater Farallones National Marine Sanctuary, they represent a vital part of our ocean ecosystem, deserving of our respect and in need of our protection. Meet the white shark, Carcharodon carcharias.
Each fall large white sharks target Greater Farallones and Cordell Bank national marine sanctuaries and adjacent waters, congregating around seal and sea lion haulouts at the Farallon Islands, Point Reyes and Tomales Point, and along the coast north to Alaska. Creatures of habit, they regularly patrol the same sites. Their visits span August through December but each may stay only two months or so: competition is fierce. Whites are highly migratory, and they must fuel up on fat-rich prey like young elephant seals and sea lions, before heading offshore. They will occasionally enjoy a more leisurely dining experience, scavenging dead whales.
Their visits here probably represent their major calorie-banking opportunity for the entire year. Come winter, they’ll leave our food-rich waters abruptly and travel to an oceanic desert roughly 1,500 miles west of the Baja Peninsula – aka the White Shark Café. Data from acoustic, pop-up satellite tags and video recordings have enabled scientists not only track them, but to gather physiological and behavioral data. At the Café, for instance, they perform a bizarre series of rapid vertical zigzag dives in the water column. Feeding or reproduction related? No one really knows.
NOT SO LONELY AT THE TOP: Our sanctuary protects a white shark population like none other on the planet, consisting exclusively of adults and sub-adults. “Our” whites represent the species’ future reproductive capability throughout the entire Northeast Pacific; they are the wise survivors. Along with humans and killer whales, white sharks are considered the ocean’s apex predators.
For white sharks, sudden death wears a human face, with killer whales running an extremely distant second. White sharks are on the Top Ten list of sharks killed for their fins, an ingredient in shark fin soup and homeopathic remedies. For the trophy jaw trade, they rank an unenviable Number One. Accidental bycatch in gillnet and longline fisheries kills untold numbers of white sharks. In some areas white shark populations have plummeted by over 70%. Between bycatch, finning, sportsfishing and habitat degradation, some populations may face extinction.
Should we be scared of white sharks? You bet! – but within reason. Should we kill or cull them, out of fear? No. To sharks, the ocean is life itself. It’s for us to stay out of harm’s way, and accept that water recreation activities put us into the oceanic food web.
FAIR IS FAIR. The region’s burgeoning numbers of seals and sea lions, with their appealing large brown eyes, are severely hampering the recovery of endangered salmon and steelhead whose populations have been decimated by river water diversion and overfishing. White sharks – though cold-eyed and fierce – are these fish species’ heroes, keeping the seal populations down. They’re the ocean’s natural system of checks and balances – endowed with a formidable set of choppers.
FRIEND OR FOE? Who could be friends with a shark? Ask a remora, a small fish that attaches itself to sharks with a sucker disk. These hungry hitchhikers eat bits of shark meal "leftovers" (and perhaps some parasites). As a human, you can be a friend to sharks … but please - only from a respectful distance!
WHITE SHARK STEWARDSHIP: Since understanding is key to effective conservation, the Farallones marine sanctuary instituted its White Shark Stewardship Project. We permit legitimate conservation-directed research. To protect whites from disruptive shark tour activities we established regulations to prohibit white shark attraction and approach. We also conduct public and boater outreach like SharktoberFest, and school education programs like Sharkmobile.