A great white shark is pictured in the Eastern North Pacific in this undated photo. Credit: Kevin Weng, University of Hawaii via REUTERS

A swimmer in Maine was attacked and killed off Bailey Island this week by a great white shark. This is a rare occurrence for New England, and the first fatal shark attack in recorded history for Maine. 

Great white sharks were made famous in Peter Benchley’s book “Jaws” and the blockbuster movie of the same title. But the fictional story didn’t tell the real tale of this predator of the seas.

Here are important facts about great white sharks, as told by science and research.

Where do great white sharks live?

Great white sharks (Carcharodon carcharias) are found around the world in cool, coastal waters. According to Dr. Nick Whitney, senior scientist and chair of the fisheries science and emerging technologies program at the New England Aquarium in Boston, the great white sharks seen in New England waters travel up and down the Eastern Seaboard from Nova Scotia to the Florida Keys and into the Gulf of Mexico. Contrary to the shark in Jaws, though, great white sharks are not territorial and their ranges will overlap. 

Great white sharks have, however, been observed congregating at the same time every year in at least one documented case. And they are probably doing so due to the presence of a common prey species, according to Whitney. 

“In the past 10 years at this time of year off of the southern tip of Cape Cod, large numbers of [great white sharks] have been gathering,” Whitney said. “The state of Massachusetts has been tagging these sharks and they see some coming back every year, and that is probably due to the seal aggregation there.”

How big do great white sharks get?

An adult great white shark averages between 10 and 16 feet long. They can weigh up to 5,000 pounds and swim up to 15 mph, propelled by their powerful tail fins.

What do great white sharks look like?

The great white shark has a torpedo-shaped body, making it an efficient and streamlined swimmer. Their upper bodies are slate gray, which blends in with the rocky sea floor. They get their name from their white underbellies.

What do great white sharks eat?

Great white sharks eat other sharks, seals, sea lions, crustaceans, mollusks and sea birds. 

Great whites have a highly developed sense of smell to detect prey. They also have specialized organs that can detect the minute electromagnetic fields generated by other animals. 

How long can great white sharks live?

Whitney said great white sharks can live to be 80 years old and that they don’t reach maturity until their teens. They have evolved in such a way that they have very few predators in nature. 

“It’s evolved to the point that once it’s mature, it’s large enough to have no predators,” Whitney said. “But then along came humans, who want to catch the largest one they can, so that’s when their evolution works against them.” 

How many teeth does a great white shark have?

At any point in time, a great white shark will have hundreds of teeth in several rows in its mouth. Like all sharks, they grow new teeth throughout their lives so they never run out of teeth if one gets broken. 

A replacement tooth will move forward from a coil-like reservoir of teeth in the jaw to replace the lost tooth. 

Whitney said if a shark lives 70 to 80 years, it’s reasonable to believe it will go through 20,000 teeth in its lifetime.

Are great white sharks a threat to humans?

According to Whitney, great white sharks don’t deliberately target humans. That’s a good thing, he said, as great white sharks are such efficient hunters that if humans were a regular prey, no one would be safe swimming in ocean waters anywhere on the planet. But that does not mean the sharks are not a potential threat.

“Unfortunately, accidents [like the Maine attack] do happen,” Whitney said. “It is devastating for the victim and their family and tragic whenever it does happen.”

When great white sharks do attack humans, it is likely a case of mistaken identity with the shark thinking the human is one of its regular prey species, like a seal, Whitney said.  

Great white sharks can also injure or kill humans by “mouthing” them, Whitney said.  Because sharks don’t have hands, they use their mouths to investigate objects and are not always gentle. The large, sharp teeth coupled with strong jaws on a great white shark can cause serious, even fatal, wounds to humans who are mouthed by the shark..

How do great white sharks fit into the ecosystem?

A top predator, great white sharks help control the populations of other species in the ecosystem by feeding on the weak, sick or injured. “That helps keep those populations healthy,” Whitney said. “They will also scavenge on dead whales.”

What is happening now with the great white shark responsible for the Maine attack?

The Maine Marine Patrol is conducting targeted patrols in southern Maine to help confirm the presence, location and species of sharks in the waters along the coast. Given that a shark can travel up to 50 miles in a single day, Whitney said the odds of finding the exact same shark that attacked a human is nearly impossible.

“A lot of research has shown that sharks move around a lot,” Whitney said. “A shark that bit a person one day is quite likely to be miles away the next day.” 

Moreover, despite the evidence of some sharks returning to Cape Cod year after year, the likelihood of that happening in the waters near Bailey Island is remote, according to Whitney. 

In addition, Whitney said there is no scientific evidence supporting the existence of so-called problem sharks or man-eating sharks. 

“Just because a shark attacks a person once does not mean it will do it again,” he said. 

What should you do if you see a great white shark?

The first thing anyone should do if they spot a great white shark is get out of the water as calmly and as quickly as possible. Avoid splashing, which could attract the shark’s attention, Whitney said. Then warn other swimmers to do the same and notify officials. 

Maine Marine Patrol is encouraging anyone who sees a shark to report it to a local marine patrol officer. Anyone reporting information should include specific location and, if possible, GPS coordinates.

What is Maine doing with reported shark information?

Maine Marine Patrol is working with the Massachusetts Department of Fisheries to identify the species of any shark reported in Maine waters. Shark reports are also being used by the Maine Department of Agriculture, Conservation and Forestry to determine if any beaches in Maine should be closed to swimming. Currently swimming in water over waist deep is prohibited at all coastal state beaches. Maine Marine Patrol is cautioning people to avoid schooling fish and seals, which are prey for the great white sharks.

Julia Bayly

Julia Bayly

Julia Bayly is a reporter at the Bangor Daily News with a regular bi-weekly column. Julia has been a freelance travel writer/photographer since 2000.