White Shark/Red Triangle
Great White Winter in Hawaii

In the film JAWS 4: THE REVENGE, a deadly, man-hungry great white travels from New England to the Bahamas in pursuit of the family that exterminated its relatives in the first three JAWS movies. As rumors of white shark activity begin to circulate, a pair of marine biologists are doubtful that a white shark could swim in such a warm climate. Great whites are temperate water fish that remain in the coastal waters farther north, they say. The possibility that a shark may have traveled more than a thousand miles from the Notheast Atlantic coast to the Bahamas is considered preposterous. The film’s plot is ridiculous for a number of reasons. The idea of a shark with a vendetta is comical.

Yet since the movie’s premiere in 1987, it’s become apparent that one element of the otherwise ridiculous story is not so outrageous. Recent research conducted off the California coast shows that white sharks travel far more than was formerly believed. Previous tracking studies only followed the sharks for a few days, and it was assumed that great whites never ventured too far from shore — home of the coastal seal and sea lion colonies where these hunters find their favorite prey.

“Going into this, what we expected was that white sharks were just coastal animals that breed in Southern California, then migrate a few hundred miles north to feed on seals,” stated biologist Burney Le Boeuf of University of California-Santa Cruz. “But it turns out they’ve got a life at sea, and when they’re in the open ocean, they’re diving very deep at times.”

LaBoeuf is one of six scientists who contributed to the research, published on January 3, 2002, in the science journal NATURE. Great white sharks are tremendously difficult creatures to study. They don’t respond well to captivity, and are next to impossible to observe closely in the wild. For the NATURE study, researchers fixed pop-up satellite archival tags to the backs of six adult great white sharks — four males and two females found near seal and sea lion colonies off the California coast. Every two minutes the electronic tags recorded information on water depth, temperature, and light. The tags were programmed to detach on a specific date, at which point they floated to the surface and delivered their data to satellites. Scientists used the light data to determine the precise geographical journey of each shark.

During the winter a male shark named Tipfin traveled more than 2,000 miles from the Farallon Islands off San Francisco to the coastal waters off the Hawaiian island of Kahoolawe. It remained in Hawaii until the next summer. Three other tagged sharks made wintertime migrations to a subtropical area of the Pacific, hundreds of miles west of the Baja coast, where they spent several months lingering in the open ocean. What’s more, the electronic tags also showed that, in the open ocean, the sharks would occasionally dive as deep as 2,040 feet below the surface. The data suggests the sharks divided their time between two primary depth levels: either 15 feet below the surface or between 900 and 1,500 feet underwater.

Researchers are still figuring out what the purpose of these migrations may be. “Such a long migration suggests a possible rendezvous for mating, or a move to feed on different prey,” said LaBoeuf. Meanwhile, the same team of scientists is conducting another study to learn more, and similar satellite studies conducted in other great white hot spots — South Africa and Australia — have documented sharks with a comparably long-range migratory pattern.

To order a copy of WHITE SHARK/RED TRIANGLE, please visit the NATURE Shop.
Online content for WHITE SHARK/RED TRIANGLE was originally posted November 2003.

  • Ryan Alan

    Just wanted to say that I am interested in the study of White sharks, and appreciate any information you can forward to me so I can stay up to speed on your studies and that of your colleagues. Thank you very much for your time.

  • Harold “Bud” Crovisier

    I am very interested in these beautiful creatures and if you have a news letter, I would like to be placed your recipient list. I am a Dive Master living up in the Pacific Northwest (Seattle) and dive year round. I encourage others to try scuba diving as it is my life’s passion. I assist in classes without any compensation for the mere pleasure of sharing this sport. (Not to mention, it keeps me very focused with repetition) Part of being a responsible scuba diver is to be aware of your surrounding and to protect those surrounds however possible. This stems from picking up trash as you run across it, report illegal dumping and of course protect the wild life in our waters. Ever since I started diving, I have earned a new nick name, AQUAMAN. :) Out of my love of the sea, I do have a favorite species which has never wavered, and would be the Carcharodon Carcharias. They are an amazing creature, with its tremendous power and mystique. In fact I love these animals so much that I’ve had one tattooed on my back from shoulder blade to shoulder blade. (it is of course eating a scuba diver)Based on a dream I had when I was 15. The scuba diver represents me being all consumed by this great fish and eventually I morphed into this Apex predator and was allowed to view our beautiful oceans without a care in the world.

    Aquaman of Seattle

  • Drew

    I am a San Francisco based surfer, I both fear & respect these creatures. Since it appears that they migrate annually, I would like to know when is the time of year mostly likely to find them off of the coast here. Would avoiding that time of year significantly reduce my odds of an interaction?

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