Of all the creatures lurking within the immense depths of the ocean, the great white shark inspires more terror and awe in people than almost anything else. This fearsome animal, which makes for quite a spectacle in the water, is the largest predatory fish in the world (though not the largest predatory marine animal; the killer whale takes that crown). The typical specimen measures between 11 and 16 feet in length and weighs a few thousand pounds.
Females are generally larger than males, probably because they need the extra size to carry their children. From the moment of their birth, the great white is already big: they emerge from the womb at 4 feet long and then grow about 10 inches per year until reaching their full adult length (this takes about 10 years for males and 15 years for females). Scientists can learn their age by counting the rings that form on the vertebrae.
Some members of this species are thought to live around 70 years of age.
The Great White: More Than Meets the Eye
There is much more to the great white shark than its size though. They are surprisingly intelligent and curious animals. While mostly solitary, they are thought to establish some kind of dominance hierarchy when congregating together in groups. They also migrate long distances between feeding and mating grounds.
Nevertheless, their size and ferocity are important aspects of their predatory lifestyle. They have an extraordinarily powerful bite force, estimated to be around 18,000 Newtons (high in absolute terms, though not quite as high, in relation to body size, as the Tasmanian devil or Nile crocodile). They also have a few rows of around 300 serrated teeth to slice through flesh.
Great white sharks hunt their prey with short bursts of speed, take a bite out of it (if they can’t swallow it whole), and let it bleed to death in the water. Then they tear through the flesh and swallow whole bites. Their favorite foods include fish (like halibut), seals (especially the elephant seal), whale carcasses, and even dolphins. While these sharks have been known to attack humans, only about 300 deaths have ever been recorded from great whites.
It has been speculated that shark attacks occur because of mistaken identity (we may look like seals to a shark), pure curiosity, or food scarcity; it could be any one of these, depending on the situation. Besides humans, only a few animals such as orcas and groups of dolphins would dare to attack an adult great white shark, and even then only rarely.
The Largest Great White Ever Recorded: Meet Deep Blue
Given its status as one of the largest predatory animals in the world, it’s no surprise that there’s a lot of interest (and even a little built-up mythology) surrounding the largest great white shark ever recorded. This honor goes to a female with the very appropriate name of Deep Blue. It’s believed that she was first spotted in the 1990s, but no photographs or video evidence from these encounters exist.
It wasn’t until 2013 that a video was finally captured of this large creature. The person who tracked her down was researcher Mauricio Hoyos Padilla, who found her near the island of Guadalupe, just off the west coast of Baja California in Mexico. It’s believed that Deep Blue returns to Guadalupe every two years to reproduce during the mating season. In fact, she may have already been pregnant during this encounter; this would be quite impressive because it means she was still producing children at the sprightly age of 50 years old.
Deep Blue’s fame reached even greater heights when the footage from the encounter was featured on Discovery’s “Shark Week” and national news networks.
Despite her newfound popularity, Deep Blue seemed to have fallen off the radar for several years, until she was spotted again in 2019 thousands of miles away, near the Hawaiian island of Oahu, feeding on the remnants of a sperm whale carcass. Perhaps because she was already full from the meal, Deep Blue was quite docile when she allowed marine biologist Ocean Ramsey to swim next to her and hold her fins (a move that some biologists criticized as unprofessional and possibly even annoying to the shark, though that remains speculation).
How do marine biologists know it was Deep Blue? That’s because sharks, like many other large animals, can be identified by their unique anatomical features. The pattern of white and gray along the side and stomach are thought to be almost as distinctive to a shark as a fingerprint is to a human. Deep Blue is also identified by the laceration along the right side of her body. It is currently impossible to track her precise movements because no one has ever tagged her. Scientists may only speculate as to where and when she will turn up next.
Just How Big is Deep Blue?
While it’s estimated that Deep Blue is the largest recorded shark, the problem is she has never actually been measured directly. Even if it was safe to do so, Deep Blue is in constant motion, which makes precise measurements difficult. Instead, the total size must be estimated from photographs and video. By that metric, Deep Blue is thought to reach up to 20 or 21 feet long and 8 feet high. She was also estimated to weigh around 5,000 pounds.
Does the evidence support the notion that Deep Blue is the largest known great white shark? That question is surprisingly difficult to answer. There are a few reports of great white shark carcasses, measuring at least the same size as Deep Blue, washed up on the shore in Cuba and Taiwan (though their size may have been exaggerated, and the picture evidence can be misleading or unclear).
Marine biologist Michael Domeier also claims to have seen specimens possibly larger than Deep Blue while conducting studies of the great white shark off the coasts of Mexico and California. And there are almost certainly larger sharks no one has ever seen or documented before lurking out there. Nevertheless, while evidence for these other sharks is lacking, we do have very clear pictures of Deep Blue showing that she takes the crown for the largest known member of her species.
How big can a great white get? Due to natural size constraints, scientists have speculated that great white sharks are unlikely to ever surpass 21 or 22 feet long. So even if a larger shark is ever discovered, it will probably exceed Deep Blue in size by only a matter of a few inches or perhaps a foot. At that point, scientists may need to make more precise measurements to determine which shark is truly larger.
Is the Great White Shark the Largest Shark in the Ocean?
One last note on shark size: A lot of people mistakenly assume that the great white is the largest shark species in the water today. In fact, the great white cannot compare in sheer size to the modern-day whale shark (or even the second-largest species, the massive basking shark). This enormous filter feeder, which measures up to 62 feet long (though the typical size is more like 30 to 40 feet long), is not known to attack people, but it does feed on krill, copepods, squid, and fish in huge quantities.
The whale shark is not necessarily the largest species to ever live though; that distinction probably goes to the extinct megalodon. Dating back some 23 to 3.6 million years ago, this close relative of the great white shark (scientists still debate exactly how closely it’s related) probably measured around an average of 35 feet and possibly up to 67 feet long. A single tooth is the same size as a human hand, and its jaws could easily fit an entire person. They were highly predatory, like the great white, and fed mostly on adult whales and dolphins. People could likely take comfort in the fact that such an enormous predator no longer stalks the world’s oceans.