UC student and a California photographer may have first-ever footage of a newborn white shark

UC student and a California photographer may have first-ever footage of a newborn white shark

A drone photographer and a shark researcher out of UC Riverside captured extraordinary footage of a pup thought to be only hours old, in what could be the first footage of a newborn white shark.

The images taken off of Santa Barbara’s central coast last year are a significant moment in documenting great white sharks and the subject of a new paper in the Environmental Biology of Fishes journal, UC Riverside officials said in an announcement this week.

“Great whites, the largest predatory sharks in the world with the most fatal attacks on humans, are tough to imagine as newborn babies,” university officials said. “That is partially because no one has seen one in the wild, it seems, until now.”

The footage was taken by wildlife filmmaker Carlos Gauna and UC Riverside biology doctoral student Phillip Sternes, who were scanning the waters for sharks on July 9 near Santa Barbara. Gauna has been documenting the increase in shark populations since 2017, following an influx seen off the Southern California coastline during the 2015 and 2016 warm water El Nino years.

While white sharks are typically gray on top and white on the bottom, this 5-foot shark was pure white.

“We enlarged the images, put them in slow motion, and realized the white layer was being shed from the body as it was swimming,” Sternes said in the announcement. “I believe it was a newborn white shark shedding its embryonic layer.”

The footage could help piece together the mysterious great white birthing habits.

“Where white sharks give birth is one of the holy grails of shark science. No one has ever been able to pinpoint where they are born, nor has anyone seen a newborn baby shark alive,” Gauna said. “There have been dead white sharks found inside deceased pregnant mothers. But nothing like this.”

It is possible the white film the shark shed could have been a skin condition, however the pair do not believe this to be the case.

“If that is what we saw, then that too is monumental because no such condition has ever been reported for these sharks,” Gauna said.

For many reasons, they believe what they saw was in fact a newborn great white. For one, mothers offer nourishment to growing shark pups with a “milk” secreted in the uterus.

“I believe what we saw was the baby shedding the intrauterine milk,” Sternes said.

The area where they were scanning is known as a great white birthing ground that often has large, likely pregnant, great whites present. Three large sharks that appeared to be pregnant were spotted at this location in the days prior, the researchers said.

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“On this day, one of them dove down, and not long afterwards, this fully white shark appears,” Gauna recalled. “It’s not a stretch to deduce where the baby came from.”

The shark’s size and shape are also indicative of a newborn; Sternes believes the shark was hours old.

“There are a lot of hypothetical areas, but despite intense interest in these sharks, no one’s seen a birth or a newborn pup in the wild,” Sternes said. “This may well be the first evidence we have of a pup in the wild, making this a definitive birthing location.”

The footage and images have gone viral since they were released this week, shared on news outlets around the world. A video of the shark has garnered more than 335,000 views on Youtube since it posted Tuesday.

The documentation is significant because experts have long believed great whites are born farther out at sea. But this pup was documented just 1,000 feet from the beach, a shallow water birth that is contrary to previous beliefs, officials said.

“Further research is needed to confirm these waters are indeed a great white breeding ground. But if it does, we would want lawmakers to step in and protect these waters to help white sharks keep thriving,” Sternes said.

Gauna’s drone footage has been viewed millions of times online by shark enthusiasts through the years and is also used by experts and researchers seeking insight about the mysterious creatures as more are seen along Southern California’s coastline as populations rebound.

Gauna’s footage is the opposite of the dramatic, Jaws-like portrayal of the apex predator often promoted. He described his approach as more simply wanting to show how great whites interact with the ocean around them.

“I think, in a way, public perception is changing,” he said last year in an interview. “I think here in Southern California especially, people are aware there’s more sharks around them.”