Meet the world’s most maligned sea creature, the white shark.

Carcharodon carcharias

White shark, great white shark, white pointer, white death, requin blanc (Fr.), grand requin blanc (Fr.)

Many people are surprised to learn that the white shark frequents the east coast of Canada, and even the St. Lawrence Gulf and Estuary. In fact, the white shark is observed more frequently in Atlantic Canada than in British Columbia.

The white shark is undoubtedly the best known and most feared shark in the world. And although its man-eater reputation is exaggerated, due in large part to sensationalistic movies and media reports, it is nonetheless a dangerous species that occasionally attacks people.

In the North Atlantic, the white shark is seasonally present in all of the Maritime provinces, Newfoundland and Labrador, and Québec. Over the last century, the majority of sightings and by-catch have occurred in the Bay of Fundy. However, captures and visual encounters have also been reported off Nova Scotia and throughout the entire Gulf of St. Lawrence. A white shark was even brought ashore as far inland as Rivière-Portneuf, which is well into the St. Lawrence Estuary and the province of Québec.

The ‘reappearance’ of the white shark in the St. Lawrence is more a return to some semblance of normalcy than a significant effect of climate change.
— Jeffrey Gallant, ORS

Surprising as this may be to some, the white shark is not a new visitor to any of these parts, nor is its long-established¹ presence in the St. Lawrence a direct result of climate change. Instead, the recent increase in sightings throughout the northwestern Atlantic more likely results from the protected status of both the white shark and its prey—seals—as well as the ubiquity of smartphones and social networks. We expect this trend to continue for as long as the white shark remains a protected species and humans take to sea.

¹ Vladykov, V. D., and R. A. McAlister. 1961. Preliminary list of marine fishes of Quebec. Le naturaliste canadien, 88(3): 17-113.
White shark (Carcharodon carcharias).
Illustration © Jeffrey Gallant | ORS

White shark (Carcharodon carcharias) filmed off Cape Cod (Massachusetts) by the Atlantic White Shark Conservancy in 2017.

Names and Taxonomy

Common Names: white shark, great white shark, white pointer, white death, requin blanc (Fr.), grand requin blanc (Fr.).

Order: Lamniformes (mackerel sharks)
Family: Lamnidae (mackerel sharks, porbeagles, white sharks)
Genus: Carcharodon
Species (scientific name): Carcharodon carcharias* (Linnaeus, 1758)

Carcharodon: from the Greek [karcharos] = to sharpen + [odous] = teeth
carcharias: Greek [karkharías] = shark
*sharp-toothed shark

Size and Appearance

¹ Randall, J. E. 1987. Refutation of lengths of 11.3, 9.0, and 6.4 m. attributed to the white shark, Carcharodon carchariasCalifornia Fish and Game, 73 (3): 163–168, figs 1–3.
² Compagno, L., Dando, M., Fowler, S. 2005. Sharks of the World. Collins, 368 p.
³ Uchida, S. Toda, M., Teshima, K., Yano, K. 1996. Pregnant White Sharks and Full-Term Embryos from Japan. In: Klimley, A.P. & Ainley, D. (Eds.) Great White Sharks. The biology of Carcharodon carcharias: 139–155.

Dentition

The adult white shark’s teeth are large, triangular and serrated. Teeth in the lower jaw, and in juveniles, are slightly narrower. After a white shark has bitten into its prey, it shakes its head from side to side to saw off pieces of flesh.

In 2008¹, a team of scientists determined that the jaw power of a 3,324-kg white shark was 18,216 newtons (1,858 kgm/s²)².

¹ Wroe, S., Huber, D. R., Lowry, M., McHenry, C., Moreno, K., Clausen, P., Ferrara, T. L., Cunningham, E., Dean, M. N., Summers, A. P. 2008. Three-dimensional computer analysis of white shark jaw mechanics: How hard can a great white bite? Journal of Zoology. 276 (4): 336–342.
² The kilogram-meter per second (kg·m/s or kg·m·s1) is the standard unit of momentum . Reduced to base units in the International System of Units (SI), a kilogram-meter per second is the equivalent of a newton-second (N·s), which is the SI unit of impulse.

Distribution

¹ Vladykov, V. D., and R. A. McAlister. 1961. Preliminary list of marine fishes of Quebec. Le naturaliste canadien, 88(3): 17-113.
² Winton Megan V., Sulikowski James, Skomal Gregory B. 2021. Fine-scale vertical habitat use of white sharks at an emerging aggregation site and implications for public safety. Wildlife Research, https://doi.org/10.1071/WR20029.
Provisional distribution of the white shark (Carcharodon carcharias) based on research by the St. Lawrence Shark Observatory (ORS). This map is updated with new and historical data on an ongoing basis. To submit additional sightings or captures, please contact us. Click on shark icons for observation details. Note: Map works best in full-screen mode.

Prey

The white shark is an opportunistic predator that will eat just about anything that comes across its path, either dead or alive.

Verified stomach contents

Fish: (partial list) Atlantic salmon, hake, halibut, mackerel, tuna, other sharks and skates.
Mammals: pinnipeds (seals), porpoises, dolphins, large cetaceans (usually dead).
Others: birds, sea turtles.

Predators

The only confirmed predator of the white shark is the orca (Orcinus orca), which has repeatedly been observed hunting and killing¹ white sharks at various locations. Although the orca is historically² known to frequent the St. Lawrence Gulf and Estuary, its presence in recent³ years has been scarce and sporadic, and mostly limited to the upper portion of the gulf. Since the white shark is equally rare, and because most chance encounters would take place at the northern limit of the shark's range, occurrences of predation by orcas in the St. Lawrence are likely very rare or non-existant.

¹ Jorgensen, Salvador & Anderson, Scot & Ferretti, Francesco & Tietz, James & Chapple, Taylor & Kanive, Paul & Bradley, Russell & Moxley, Jerry & Block, Barbara. 2019. Killer whales redistribute white shark foraging pressure on seals. Scientific Reports. 9. 10.1038/s41598-019-39356-2.
² Vladykov, V.D. 1944. Études sur les mammifères aquatiques III. Chasse, biologie et valeur économique du marsouin blanc ou beluga (Delphinapterus leucas) du fleuve et du golfe St Laurent. Dept. Pêcheries Prov. Québec. 194 pp.
³ Wenzel, Frederick & Sears, R. 1988. A note on killer whales in the Gulf of St. Lawrence, including an account of an attack on a minke whale. Rit Fiskideild. 11. 202-204.
(Above) Orcas chasing a white shark in South Africa.

Reproduction

Little is known about the white shark's reproduction. It is ovoviviparous and reaches sexual maturity at around 30 years (26 yrs for males and 36 yrs for females)¹. Although birth has never been observed, gestation is believed to last around 12 months. Females give birth to 4 to 14 pups measuring approximately 135-151 cm at birth².

¹ Natanson Lisa J., Skomal Gregory B. (2015) Age and growth of the white shark, Carcharodon carcharias, in the western North Atlantic Ocean. Marine and Freshwater Research 66, 387-398.
² Castro, J. I. 2011. The Sharks of North America. Oxford University Press, 613 p.

Life Expectancy

A study¹ published in 2014 demonstrated that white sharks grow more slowly and live longer than previously thought. Age and growth estimates for the northwestern Atlantic population were derived from vertebral band counts and radiocarbon dating on the vertebrae of eight specimens (four males and four females). Age estimates were up to 40 years for the largest female (526 cm) and 73 years for the largest male (493 cm). Although this would make the white shark one of the longest-lived chondrichthyan fishes (sharks, skates, rays, and chimaeras), it is still nowhere near the lifespan of the venerable Greenland shark.

¹ Li Ling Hamady, Lisa J. Natanson, Gregory B. Skomal, Simon R. Thorrold. Vertebral Bomb Radiocarbon Suggests Extreme Longevity in White Sharks. PLoS ONE, 2014; 9 (1): e84006
² Nielsen, J., Hedeholm, R. B., Heinemeier, J., Bushnell, P. G., Christiansen, J. S., 2815 Olsen, J., et al. (2016). Eye lens radiocarbon reveals centuries of longevity in the Greenland shark (Somniosus microcephalus). Science 353, 702–704.

Attacks

Although injuries and deaths have occurred along the U.S. Eastern Seaboard, including a recent fatal encounter in the state of Maine (July 2020), no such direct attacks on humans have been attributed to the white shark in Eastern Canada. As of 2021, only a handful of confrontations involving small fishing boats have been reported in the Maritimes and Newfoundland over the last century. In one incident, a man died from drowning after a white shark attacked his dory off Cape Breton in 1953. Unfortunately, it may only be a question of time before increasing numbers of white sharks and humans sharing nearshore waters, along with a combination of adverse physical variables such as poor visibility and the proximity of regular prey species, i.e. being in the wrong place at the wrong time, lead to one or more white shark incidents in Atlantic Canada and Québec.

Fisheries

None. Although there is no directed fishery for the white shark in Canada, several individuals have nonetheless been caught as by-catch since record keeping began in the 19th century.

Status

The white shark is listed as an endangered species by COSEWIC (Committee on the Status of Endangered Wildlife in Canada).