Great White Shark Migrations and Where They Live

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Great white shark

Great white sharks are found in tropical, subtropical and temperate, and occasionally in cold waters worldwide. They are generally found in somewhat cold temperate waters — such as off southern Australia, South Africa, Japan, New England, Peru, Chile, New Zealand and northern California. They are seen from time to time in the Mediterranean. A dead 4.8 meter great white shark was found floating belly up in a canal of Kawasaki Port near Tokyo ones. Workers used a crane to remove it.

Great white sharks often migrating seasonally to follow its preferred temperature range approximately 10 to 27°C (50 to 80 °F). In the U.S. Atlantic, they range from Maine to the Gulf of Mexico and U.S. Caribbean. In the U.S. Pacific, they range from Alaska to California and Hawaii. The white shark also lives in waters off the Pacific coast of Mexico. [Source: NOAA]

The white shark occurs in both nearshore coastal waters and offshore pelagic waters, often migrating seasonally between different habitats. Their preferred habitats shift with age. Pups and juveniles tend to remain in near-shore habitats over shallow continental-shelf, in warmer waters. As they age and their diets change, they split their time between seal and sea lion rookeries and pelagic habitats. There are nursery areas for juvenile white sharks in near-shore waters of southern California and off Long Island, New York..

The geographic range of great white sharks is extremely wide. From 60°N latitude to 60°S latitude.. They are commonly seen in coastal waters and continental shelves along central California, off the western cape of South Africa and in seas off southern and western Australia. They have also been reported in the Mediterranean Sea and in coastal waters off Newfoundland, Alaska, South America, West Africa, Scandinavia, Japan, and the eastern coastline of China to Russia. Great white sharks are primarily a coastal and offshore inhabitant of insular Great white sharks have been known to breach the surface and have also been found at depths of 1,875 meters. They seem to prefer waters with sea surface temperatures of 59 to 72°F. According to National Geographic Society (2009), there are no reliable data on great white shark population numbers. [Source: Dana Chewning and Matt Hall, Animal Diversity Web (ADW)]

Websites and Resources: Shark Foundation ; International Shark Attack Files, Florida Museum of Natural History, University of Florida ; Animal Diversity Web (ADW); National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA); Fishbase ; Encyclopedia of Life ; Smithsonian Oceans Portal ; Woods Hole Oceanographic Institute ; Cousteau Society ; Monterey Bay Aquarium ; MarineBio

Great White Shark Migrations

areas where Great Whites have been seen
It was once though that great white sharks remained near the surface in relatively small areas, where they could hunt seals and other prey. But studies have shown they move considerable distances and sometimes dive great depths. One study found that a single shark moved 1,800 miles along the Australian coast in three months. Another study found that great white shark swim to great depths, routinely reaching depths of between 900 and 1,500 feet and occasionally exceeding depths of 2,000 feet. DNA studies of great white sharks indicates that males tend to roam the seas while females stay closer to one place.

Another study recorded a male shark in northern California traveling 3,800 kilometers to Hawaii. It traveled at a rate of 71 kilometers a day, remained there during the winter months and returned to California. It is not clear why it traveled since there seemed to be plenty of food in California. Three other California great white shark swam hundreds of kilometers southward into the open sea of Baja California for several months and returned. A number of tagged California have lingered at a spot about halfway to Hawaii. What they do there — eat or mate perhaps — is still unknown.

Great White Shark regularly swim between Australia and South Africa, presumably to seek food. On great white shark tagged off of South Africa showed up about three months later 10,500 kilometers away off the western coast of Australia and then was seen back in South African waters. Research seem to indicate that the populations in North Pacific and those that migrate between South Africa and Australia are two separate populations that do not mingle.

Researcher Greg Skomal has has been tracking great whites off Cape Cod for years: He and his colleagues tagged five in 2009 and 17 in 2012. He said that half of the sharks tagged in 2011 came back to the areas where they were tagged the following year. [Source: Juliet Eilperin, Washington Post, August 6, 2013]

Researchers use a few different tags, including acoustic ones that rely on radio transmitters and satellite tags. Tags placed on sharks record levels of ambient lights that can be translated into longitude and latitude (See Tracking Great White Sharks). These tags sometimes show great white sharks gathering in places in the middle of nowhere for reasons scientists can not explain — maybe to mate, maybe for food. Erik Vance wrote in National Geographic: Their migrations aren’t neat, like a bird’s or a butterfly’s. They’re messy, with one hugging the coast while another zigzags hundreds of miles out to sea. Many, but not all, seem to seasonally move between warm and cold water. And the paths seem different for males, females, and juveniles. [Source: Erik Vance, National Geographic, July 2016]

Why Great White Sharks Migrate

20120518-Great_white_shark_100.JPGIt is believed that great whites follow regular migration patterns They feed on seals and elephant seals when the sharks are hanging out in sea mammals breeding areas. When the seals leaves to hunt in the open sea, the great whites also leave. It is not known where they go. Most likely the don’t hunt seals, who are widely dispersed. It believed that the sharks pursue other prey, possibly whales, but nobody knows.

Great white sharks often migrate seasonally to follow its preferred temperature range of 10 to 27° C (50 to 80°F). R. Aidan Martin and Anne Martin wrote in Natural History magazine, “ In recent studies, electronic tags attached to individual white sharks and monitored by satellites have shown that the animals can swim thousands of miles a year. One individual swam from Mossel Bay, South Africa, to Ex-mouth, Western Australia, and back--a round trip of 12,420 miles--in just nine months. Such long-distance swimming may take white sharks through the territorial waters of several nations, making the sharks hard to protect (not to mention hard to study). Yet a better understanding of their habitat needs, their movement patterns, their role in the marine ecosystem, and their social lives is critical to the species' survival. [Source: R. Aidan Martin, Anne Martin, Natural History magazine, October 2006]

As September approaches, the white sharks' hunting season at Seal Island draws to a close. Soon most of them will depart, remaining abroad until their return next May. The Cape fur seal pups that have survived this long have become experienced in the deadly dance between predator and prey. They are bigger, stronger, wiser--and thus much harder to catch. The handful of white sharks that remain in False Bay year-round probably shift to feeding on fishes such as yellowtail tuna, bull rays, and smaller sharks. In effect, they seasonally switch feeding strategies from energy maximization to numbers maximization.

Shark Café

Cheryl Lyn Dybas wrote in Natural History magazine: White Shark Café is an open-ocean winter and spring habitat for otherwise coastal great whites. The area, halfway between Baja California and Hawaii, hadn’t been a suspected shark hangout. But when scientists mapped data from satellite tags placed on 179 great white sharks between 2000 and 2008, they discovered that the sharks frequently travel to and loiter there. While at the café, they dive to depths of 1,000 feet as often as once every ten minutes, according to Salvador J. Jorgensen of Stanford’s Hopkins Marine Station. He and colleagues published their results online in November 2009 in Proceedings of the Royal Society B. [Source: Cheryl Lyn Dybas, Natural History magazine, September-October 2012]

Coming mostly from rookeries along the Pacific coast, the great whites take up to 100 days to arrive, traveling at about two knots. The study showed that the sharks adhere to a rigid route of migration across the sea, returning to exactly the same spot. Since both male and female sharks have been tracked to the café, an early hypothesis was that it could be the undersea equivalent of a trendy pickup bar. Further studies, however, revealed that juvenile sharks also make their way there.

The purpose of the deep dives is not yet known, with the great whites lingering, often for months, in what seems to be an oceanic “desert” where food is scarce. Michael L. Domeier of the Marine Conservation Science Institute in Fallbrook, California, hypothesizes that the predators are feeding not on fish but on giant squid. Sperm whales, which feed on giant squid, are sighted in that area. Tracking other species, such as tuna, may help explain how the shark café came to be. “We’re only beginning to understand what it means to have the equivalent of lions in the ocean wilderness off California,” says Block.

Why Do Sharks Go to Shark Cafe?

Erik Vance wrote in National Geographic: “ For years scientists have noticed that adult great whites in California and Mexico quit the coast in late fall. Now we know where they go: deep water in the middle of the Pacific Ocean. Why they visit this great white shark “café” remains unclear. “I call it Burning Man for white sharks,” says Salvador Jorgensen, a biologist who studies factors that drive great white migration and ecology. “They are heading out to what some people call the desert of the ocean, and what the hell are they doing out there?” [Source: Erik Vance, National Geographic, July 2016]

“One possible answer is mating, which might explain why no one has ever observed it. The area is roughly the size of California and thousands of feet deep, which makes it hard to monitor sharks there. But satellite tags tell us that the females swim predictable straight patterns while the males swim up and down in the water column, possibly searching for mates. Thus a rough sketch of the lives of California white sharks is forming. After spending the summer and fall gorging on seals, they head out to the deep ocean to breed, relying on energy stores to live. The males then swim back to the coast while the females wander to unknown places, where they remain for another year or so, perhaps to birth their young. Newborn sharks then show up at feeding grounds — say, the waters off Southern California — devouring fish until they are big enough to join their elders in the north or south hunting seals.

“It’s not a perfect picture. Females and males aren’t in the café together for long, and we don’t know where the babies are born. But it explains a lot. For example, as a population rebounds, its young become plentiful, which is likely why Southern Californians have encountered a lot of sharks lately. Yet it’s tougher to figure out elsewhere. Australian sharks forage along the southern coast but don’t seem to have a pattern or café. And in the Atlantic we know even less. “We’ve got wanderers, and we’ve got coastal sharks. And what dictates which, I have no idea,” Skomal says.

5.2-Meter Great White Shark Migrates Across the Atlantic

In 2021 a 5.2-meter (17-foot) great white shark that hung around for months off North Carolina’s Outer Banks mysteriously turned up 3,200 kilometers (2,000 miles away) on the other side of the Atlantic Ocean. Mark Price wrote in the Idaho Statesman: “Satellite tracking shows the 50-year-old shark, named Nukumi, crossed the Mid-Atlantic Ridge and is now in the Northeast Atlantic, a trek experts say migratory species rarely make. Why the 1606 kilograms (3,541-pound) shark is making the journey isn’t understood, but scientists with OCEARCH think it may be due to pregnancy. [Source: Mark Price, Idaho Statesman, April 14, 2021]

“The waters off the Outer Banks are believed to be a mating ground for white sharks, and gestating females might head for deeper water to avoid aggressive males, OCEARCH speculates. White shark mating is brutal, with males biting the female to hold her in place. “Only the most highly migratory fishes, like bluefin tunas, blue sharks, and shortfin makos, cross between the western and eastern Atlantic,” OCEARCH Chief Scientist Bob Hueter said. “For Nukumi to reach the ridge and then move past it, she had to travel about 2,000 nautical miles from the North Carolina coast, which she left around February 22.” The shark is averaging 44 miles a day, he said.

OCEARCH has fitted several dozen white sharks with satellite tags to track their movements along the East Coast, and it has shown they prefer to hug the coast.. Only one other shark, named Lydia, made transatlantic trip, back in 2014, OCEARCH says. She was also a large female: 14.6 feet and 2,000 pounds. The trip took her as far east as the Azores, about 850 miles off Portugal. The battery in Lydia’s tracker ran out of energy in 2018, so her current location is unknown.

“Nukumi was tagged off Nova Scotia in October and has since traveled 5,570 miles, tracking shows. The shark has been recorded as the largest white shark tagged by OCEARCH in the Northwest Atlantic. “Nukumi and other sharks like her are apex predators of the ocean. They ... balance fish stocks,” OCEARCH founder Chris Fischer said in a release. “Knowing these large females are spending significant time outside of US/Canadian waters demonstrates we must engage with the foreign fishing fleets throughout the North Atlantic,” he said. “If our large sharks don’t thrive, there simply will be no food in our oceans for future generations.”

Great Whites Gather Off Massachusetts Where Jaws was Shot

In the U.S., sharks gather off of Monomoy Island near Martha's Vineyard, where much of the movie “Jaws” was filmed, presumably to pursue a favorite prey — gray seals — which gather on the island. Jennifer Viegas wrote in Discovery News: The sharks make a pilgrimage to this region every year to feed, but a particularly large gray seal population has become an enticing magnet for them. The presence of the sharks has created a booming tourism business as well as some jitters in the area."Gray seals have a lot of blubber and meat, so they are a high efficiency preferred menu item of great white sharks," New England Aquarium spokesperson Tony LaCasse told Discovery News. "Somehow the word is out in the great white world that this is the place to be."[Source: Jennifer Viegas, Discovery Channel, July 18, 2011]

Federal protection of marine mammals has been in place since 1972, and has led to the recovery of gray seals in the area, which are larger and fattier than Harbor seals that are in the waters off of Cape Cod. LaCasse suspects it took this long for gray seals to build up their population. When seal numbers were down, the great white sharks mostly fed on dead whale carcasses, called "floaters." LaCasse said just this May, a fisherman went to explore a dead Minke whale near Martha's Vineyard and was surprised by a great white shark that swam out from under the whale "and checked him out.” The fisherman escaped without injuries.

Monomoy Island, where the great whites have been spotted, is an 8 mile spit of sand extending southwest from Cape Cod, and a national wildlife refuge, where access is limited. This has helped to keep people safe from the sharks. A booming tourism industry, with great white sharks as the number one draw, has emerged in nearby Chatham, Mass.

Recent research supports the rise in great white shark numbers off of Cape Cod. A tagging project led by Greg Skomal of the Massachusetts Division of Marine Fisheries (DMF), succeeded in tagging six white sharks, ranging from 10 to 18 feet in length, off the coast of Monomoy Island. The DMF notes there has been a "recent increase in shark sightings," mentioning "the growing population of gray seals."

Return of Great White Sharks to the Cape Cod Area

Erik Vance wrote in National Geographic: “Before 2004 hardly anyone in modern times saw great white sharks in the waters off the East Coast. Occasionally one would appear near a beach or in a fishing net, but they were anomalies. Elsewhere, great whites congregate seasonally around five “hubs” or territories, including California’s coast down to Mexico’s Baja California, South Africa’s southern shores, and Australia’s southern coast, where they gather to feed on seals. But there’s been no hub on the East Coast, nor have there been many seals. Sharks here were wanderers without a home. Then, in 2004, a single female found her way into shallow inlets and shoals near Woods Hole, Massachusetts. [Source: Erik Vance, National Geographic, July 2016]

“For Skomal, who’d been tagging other sharks for 20 years, this was the chance of a lifetime — a great white in his own backyard. “I thought it was a fluke. This will never happen again,” he says with his broad, boyish grin under ruffled salt-and-pepper hair. Over the next two weeks Skomal and his colleagues followed the shark, which they named Gretel after the lost girl in the fairy tale, and affixed an electronic tracker on her. Tracking a white shark across the Atlantic Ocean offered a chance to solve so many riddles. But 45 minutes into the journey, Gretel’s tag malfunctioned and popped off. “I went from this superhigh to this really deep low, because I was convinced that this was the shot in my career to study a white shark,” Skomal says.

“It wasn’t. Over the next few years he thought a lot about Gretel and wondered whether she was indeed alone. Then, on Labor Day, 2009, everything changed. A pilot saw five great whites off the cape. Over that weekend Skomal tagged them all. “I absolutely freaked out. My adrenaline was pumping. My heart — I could feel it just pounding in my chest. This was everything I was dreaming of.”

“White sharks have returned every summer since, leading some to call Cape Cod the sixth hub. How many great whites are there? For that we turn to the hub running from California to Baja California. The effort to count sharks there was pioneered by Scot Anderson while he was a volunteer seabird scientist in the mid-1980s on an island west of San Francisco’s Golden Gate Bridge. Anderson and others have tracked the sharks — at first by sight, then by acoustic tags, and most recently with satellites. During the past 30 years, teams have assembled thousands of observations of individual sharks recognized by the shape and marks of their dorsal fins, while others have used the distinctive line between their gray bodies and white underbellies. Scientists know where the sharks congregate and how they feed. And each year most sharks they see are the ones they saw in previous years.

“Even though he doesn’t understand their migrations yet, Skomal is sure that white sharks have a long history here. At his office in New Bedford, just west of Cape Cod, he opens a document that compiled studies of seal bones from Native American archaeological sites along the eastern seaboard. The discarded bones suggest that seal populations crashed from overhunting perhaps a century before the Declaration of Independence. In other words, we’ve had very few Atlantic gray seals throughout the United States’ 240-year history. Today, thanks to the Marine Mammal Protection Act, seal colonies now populate New England. And when the seals returned, the sharks came home as well.

White shark tracks in southeastern Australia from Anna Bay, Hawks Nest, Forster–Tuncurry, and Lake Arragan. Red tracks indicate a southward movement direction, yellow tracks a northward direction, and blue indicate no direction assigned, From “Assessing White Shark (Carcharodon carcharias) Behavior Along Coastal Beaches for Conservation-Focused Shark Mitigation” by Andrew P. Colefax, Brendan P. Kelaher, Daniel E. Pagendam and Paul A. Butcher, Sec. Marine Biology, April 28, 2020,

Great Whites in Tropical Waters

They only occasionally show themselves in warm shallow water such as in the Caribbean. Peter Benchley, the author “Jaws”, once encountered a great white shark in water around the Bahamas.

In 2016, a 3 to 3.5 meter (10- to 12-foot) great white shark was spotted on Alligator Reef off Islamorada in the Florida Keys, circling a charter snorkeling boat for about 30 to 45 minutes. The Miami Herald reported: “The large fish, which is a rare sight in Keys waters, was swimming in about 15 feet of water around the HappyCat, a charter vessel docked at Robbie's Marina on Lower Matecumbe Key. “Captain Chris Muller got into the water to shoot video of the shark as it swam by his boat around 3:45 p.m. “"I've never seen anything like this in my life, especially not in the Keys, and I've swam with a lot of sharks," Muller.[Source: David Goodhue, Miami Herald, April 17, 2016]

“Muller had a charter of 13 people, mostly exchange students from places like Thailand and South Korea. He had just put the snorkelers in the water and went into his wheelhouse while his mate, Greg Schlosser, watched the swimmers. A few minutes later, Schlosser came into the wheelhouse and said there was a great white in the water. He thinks it was a male. "I said, 'there's no white out there,'" Muller said. "Sure enough, there it was. He was big." Muller and Schlosser quickly got the customers back aboard the HappyCat. He said they were freaked out at first, but then became excited as they watched the shark swimming. Schlosser was the first to go in the water to confirm the species. He also shot video of the fish. Muller notified an arriving dive boat of the shark before taking his charter to the Alligator Lighthouse to swim."They had a good time and weren't afraid to go back in the water," Muller said. "The shark didn't follow us. He stayed on the deeper, southern end of the reef."

Rose, a 3-meter (10-foot), 180 kilograms (600 pound) female juvenile great white shark, was tagged on OCEARCH's October 2020 expedition in Nova Scotia. Rose, as well as other white sharks, head into Gulf of Mexico waters when migrating south for the winter. Rose was tracked in the Gulf of Mexico about 50 miles away from Sanibel. According to the Fort Myers News-Press: She started off her 2023 near Key West, pinging near the islands on Feb. 7. Since then, she has spent her time mainly in Gulf of Mexico, slightly steering off towards Southwest waters. The last time she was this close to Cape Coral was on April 12 of 2022. [Source: Samantha Neely, Fort Myers News-Press, March 14, 2023]

Image Sources: Wikimedia Commons; YouTube, Animal Diversity Web, NOAA

Text Sources: Animal Diversity Web (ADW); National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA); Wikipedia, National Geographic, Live Science, BBC, Smithsonian, New York Times, Washington Post, Los Angeles Times, The New Yorker, Reuters, Associated Press, Lonely Planet Guides and various books and other publications.

Last Updated March 2023

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