White Shark Information

Photo collage: mackerel and white shark, head-on picture of white shark, white shark swimming

White Shark FAQ

White sharks, also called great white sharks (Carcharodon carcharias), are one of the ocean's primary predators, and fascinating creatures to many. Yet white sharks remain one of the least understood of the sea's creatures, despite the enormous public and scientific interest in them.

Below are some common questions about white sharks, with answers from CDFW experts:

Is it legal to catch white sharks?

What do I do if I accidentally hook a white shark?

If you accidentally hook a white shark, immediately release it. Do not remove it from the water; if fishing from shore, do not pull it onto the beach. Cut the line as close to the hook as possible, keeping your safety and the safety of the shark in mind.

Is it legal to attract white sharks with bait or decoys?

How do you tell white sharks from other species of sharks?

According to Dr. Robert Lea, retired CDFW senior biologist and shark expert, "If you see a shark greater than 15 ft. in California, chances are it's a white shark." White sharks have robust, torpedo shaped bodies with conical snouts, and a narrow tail-stalk with stout ridges called keels that extend laterally off either side. Their coloration is defined by a clear distinction between the charcoal grey or black to dark grey-brown on upper surfaces, and the white on lower surfaces. The pectoral fins have white trailing edges, black tips on the undersides, and a black spot at the pectoral axil ("armpit") in some individuals. Their jaws are loaded with large, triangular, serrated teeth.

The most similar species in California include the mako shark (Isurus oxyrinchus), which lacks black tips on the undersides of the fins and has thin, pointed teeth without serrations, and the salmon shark (Lamna ditropis), which has a generally darker back, larger eye, and shorter snout. It also has white coloration above the pectoral fins, and pointed teeth without serration.

Illustration of a white shark compared to other sharks in the same family (Lamnidae, the mackerel sharks) (PDF)

What do white sharks typically eat?

Both adult and juvenile white sharks are ambush predators, which means they rapidly attack their prey from a concealed position. Juveniles typically feed on fishes, small sharks, and rays. Adults have a broader menu, which includes fishes, seals, sea lions, dolphins, whale blubber (scavenged), seabirds, sea turtles, rays, and other sharks.

How large do white sharks get?

White sharks are about 4 to 5 feet long when first born. Juvenile sharks grow slowly to about 10 feet long, when they are considered mature. Adult white sharks grow to about 21 feet long and are one of the top-level predators of the ocean. A female white shark was captured off Point Vincente, Los Angeles County, in September 1986 that measured 17.6 feet long and weighed 4,140 lbs.

How old do white sharks get and how often do they reproduce?

White sharks are long-lived; a recent study at Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution determined white sharks can live to be 40 to 70 years old. They do not reproduce for the first several years. Male white sharks become sexually mature at around 9-10 years of age. Females become mature at around 14 to 16 years old, and can have between two and 14 "pups" per litter. Birthing is thought to occur in the spring and summer months, but has never been witnessed. Each pup is around 4 to 5 feet long at birth, and comes equipped with a full set of teeth.

Scientists believe the white shark gestation period lasts about 12 months, which means that female white sharks may breed only once every two years. This slow rate of reproduction indicates that it would take a long time for white shark populations to recover if they became severely depleted.

Scientists consider Southern California a nursery ground for white sharks. Pregnant sharks likely give birth in the relatively calm, warmer waters offshore and the juvenile sharks spend significant time in shallow water. The juveniles feed on abundant stingrays and other small fish during warm water periods. As they grow and mature, the sharks move to other areas and colder water, where seals and sea lions are more abundant.

Where do white sharks occur?

White sharks are widely distributed around the world, mostly in cold, temperate waters, only occasionally occurring in tropical seas. They prefer areas with sea surface temperatures of 50 to 72 degrees Fahrenheit. White sharks are commonly seen at the ocean surface but have been known to occur as deep as 6,150 ft. Juvenile white sharks are frequently seen in shallow nearshore waters off Southern California, especially in the summer and during warm water periods.

What is the white sharks' role in the marine ecosystem?

White sharks play a crucial role in the marine ecosystem by feeding on pinniped (seal and sea lion) populations. The only real threats white sharks face are from humans and the occasional killer whale (or orca, Orcinus orca).

According to Burr Heneman, who drafted California's white shark protection legislation, "white sharks, orcas, and disease are about the only factors limiting seal and sea lion populations in California, and research increasingly confirms that the white shark population is pretty small and highly vulnerable to fishing pressure."

Are white sharks endangered in California?

In 2014, the Fish and Game Commission determined that based on the best available science, listing the northeastern Pacific population of white shark as threatened or endangered under the California Endangered Species Act was not warranted. This was consistent with CDFW's recommendation. There are currently multiple estimates of the northeastern Pacific white shark population ranging from just a few hundred to greater than 3,000 individuals. All current estimates involve some degree of uncertainty, as there are significant gaps in understanding of white shark movements, reproductive biology and mating behaviors. Based on a thorough review of the best available scientific information, the higher estimates are more likely correct.

Data on commercial fisheries interactions provide a useful tool for studying trends in white shark populations, which are difficult to study directly due to their wide range and low density. Catch trends over the past decade suggest the juvenile white shark population in Southern California may be increasing. This is further supported by a rise in the incidental catch of white sharks in gillnet fisheries even as effort in these fisheries has declined. The apparent population increase may be due to added regulatory protections, primarily enacted in the 1990s, including state and federal prohibitions on take of white shark, and progressively restrictive regulations on gillnet gear over the same time period.

There are also indications that the adult population of white sharks may be increasing. White shark attacks on marine mammals at Southeast Farallon Island have been documented since the 1980s, providing a lengthy time series for comparison. An increase in the number of attacks suggests that the white shark population increased as the population of the northern elephant seals at the island increased. At San Miguel Island, off Southern California, evidence of white shark attacks on pinnipeds have substantially increased in the last few years. White shark bite marks are also found on recovered carcasses of central California southern sea otters (Enhydra lutris nereis). Over the past five years, researchers from the United States Geological Survey have documented a dramatic increase in the number of sea otter mortalities linked to white shark bites.

The increase in attacks on marine mammals cannot be definitively linked to an increase in the white shark population. However, instances of attacks have increased in new areas without a corresponding decrease in other locations. Therefore, it is reasonable to infer there may be more sharks foraging on marine mammals and moving into different areas.

How are scientists studying the white shark population?

Scientists at the Farallon Islands visually document individual white sharks based on unique external characteristics (e.g. scars, marks, fin shapes, unique coloration patterns, etc.) They note any re-sightings of each recorded animal. It may soon be possible to use these visual documentations as a mark-and-recapture technique to estimate the actual numbers of animals occupying that area.

In Southern California, scientists from California State University Long Beach are tagging white sharks and tracking their movements. Tagging enables scientists to determine how far sharks move and where they go as well as whether there's just one population or multiple populations moving up and down the coast. Recently, a shark tagged off of the California coast was tracked moving to Hawaii and back for two years in a row.

Scientists from the Marine Conservation Science Institute are studying white sharks at Guadalupe Island, Mexico using a photo-identification database to track the visitation patterns of individual sharks as well as monitor the status of the overall population. They also use electronic tagging technologies to study the life history and migratory patterns of northeastern Pacific white sharks.

Shark Incidents

How common are shark interactions with humans?

Incidents where sharks bite humans are extremely rare in California. While they don't typically prey on humans, sharks may pose a threat if you meet them on their "turf" (or maybe in this case "surf"). Since 1950, there have been 215 shark incidents* in California involving all species of sharks, at least 188 of which involved white sharks. Of those, 16 were fatal and all of the fatalities likely involved white sharks.

It is important to note that while human beach use and ocean activities have greatly increased due to the growing population and greater popularity of surfing, swimming, and scuba diving, shark incidents have not increased proportionally. This is even more evident when looking at incidents where a person was injured.

California Shark Incident* Statistics

(Updated June 2024)

Decade No Injury Non-fatal Injuries Fatalities Total
1950s 1 7 4 12
1960s 1 9 0 10
1970s 2 17 0 19
1980s 3 14 3 20
1990s 11 18 1 30
2000s 20 17 3 40
2010s 33 20 2 55
2020s 12 14 3 29
Totals 83 116 16 215

* A shark incident is defined as any documented case where a shark approached and touched a person in the water, or touched a person’s surfboard, kayak, paddleboard, etc. This summary does not include shark sightings where no contact occurred, instances where sharks approached boats, or cases where hooked sharks caused injury or damage.

Map showing fatal and non-fatal shark incidents from 1950 to present - click to enlarge in new window
(Click to enlarge)

Safety: How can people avoid shark incidents?

There is only one guaranteed method for avoiding a shark interaction: stay out of the ocean. While most white shark incidents have occurred at the surface, there have also been incidents between sharks and divers underwater. Scientists agree that most white shark incidents with humans are not predatory attempts, but rather the result of exploratory bites from sharks investigating unusual objects in their environment, such as kayaks. The other cause is believed to be sharks mistaking a person for their usual prey - a seal or sea lion. Juvenile sharks, which can be as long as 10 feet, sometimes charge and "bump" larger objects, potentially as a learning exercise as they begin to transition to larger marine mammal prey. Swimming in areas where sharks have been observed or where white sharks have been seen feeding is not recommended.

Sharing the Shores with White Sharks. Film by the Cal State Long Beach Shark Laboratory.

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