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Published on : 27th September 2017

Great White Sharks in the UK: Why Don’t They Visit?

It’s hard not to love sharks or at the very least: find them absolutely, crazy-fascinating. We could sit and talk all day about the trillion-and-one things that make them so cool. But instead, let’s turn our attention to the most notorious species: the Great White. It’s an awesome and powerful apex predator that can be found throughout the majority of the world’s oceans. However, there is a noticeable absence of Great White Sharks in the UK’s waters despite it being a seemingly ideal habitat for them.

 

So why is this? Why don’t us here in the land of tea and biscuits get the privilege of their presence?

 

Great White Shark breaking the surf

Great White Shark breaking the surf © Bernard Dupont via WikiCommons

 

The Great White’s Habitat

Before we go on to say, first, a bit of background. Like us, the Great White is endothermic, meaning that their internal body temperature needs to be regulated by themselves. This means that they can have a body temperature cooler or warmer than the surrounding water. Because of this, they are able to tolerate waters where the temperatures can range anywhere between 4°C-25°C.

That’s a very big range.

It essentially means that the Great White can swim in all of the world’s oceans, except for those within the polar regions. However, the water’s that they tend to inhabit are generally around the 16°C mark.

This is where it gets interesting.

During the Summer and Autumn months, the UK’s mean water temperature can range from 14-18°C in parts of England, which aligns nicely with the Great White’s preferred 16ºC. These temperatures coupled with an abundance of the Great White’s prey make the UK a perfect place for them. Or so you’d think.

Mean Water Temperatures in the South of England from June-October

Mean water temperatures in the South of England from June-October compared to the average water temperature the Great White lives in. Data from Cefas.

 

Back to the earlier question. Why aren’t there any Great White Sharks in the UK?

The answer unfortunately is… Nobody knows.

But that doesn’t stop us from speculating and presenting our own theories. Rest assured though, these theories aren’t wild concoctions that I pulled randomly from a hat. They come from knowledge gathered through an extensive research project that I personally carried out over 200 hours during my undergraduate degree in marine biology.

 

My 3rd year thesis

My 3rd-year thesis

 

So, without further ado here are some possible reasons why we don’t get Great White Sharks in the UK.

 

1. They Simply Don’t Know About the Waters Around the UK

 

It’s hard to explain this theory due to the huge amount of time that Great Whites have been on the planet for. Fossil evidence suggests that they have been around for at least 16 million years. Being on the planet for that long surely means they’ve had the chance to visit every corner of the globe and establish populations wherever possible?

Let’s assume for a second that despite their long-time presence on the earth they have never, not even once, strayed into British waters. It could be because there are too many obstacles in the way preventing them from reaching her majesty’s homeland.

By obstacles, take Ireland.

It’s blocking around half of the UK’s western coastline. This could have always prevented Great Whites in the Atlantic from reaching us. But then again, Ireland has never had a confirmed Great White in their waters either. So it doesn’t really explain why they aren’t reaching the east side of the Atlantic.

 

2. The Migration is too Long to be Worth it

 

I would argue that this is the most likely reason. Great Whites are highly capable migratory fish, being able to swim for thousands of kilometres without needing to go anywhere near the coast. As part of their ability to go offshore for long periods of time, they possess a large liver that stores high-energy lipids, meaning that they can go without food for up to six weeks.

Given their reputation for being able transverse entire oceans, it’s practically a given that the Great White would be able to the reach the shores of the UK and Ireland from the coasts of North America. But being capable doesn’t mean that they should.

 

Lydia’s Trip

Below is a screenshot that was taken from Ocearch.org. It shows the path of a tagged female Great White called Lydia.

 

The path of Lydia the Great White Shark ©Ocearch

The path of Lydia the Great White Shark ©Ocearch

Lydia is the first Great White ever recorded to cross the Atlantic and once this data was produced in 2014, people went crazy. Countless news articles were speculating that she would end up reaching Ireland or the UK.

Unfortunately, she didn’t.

Still about 2000km away from Ireland, the yellow marker shows the closest she got before starting to turn back.

From Florida to the point of her turning back, it took her 374 days. Granted, she will have taken her time by making stop-offs along the way for food, but still, that’s over a year to travel from one continent to (nearly) another.

So, by undergoing a regular migration to the UK, Great Whites would have to sacrifice a lot of their time. This time is much better spent when they’re in areas that they’re familiar with when there’s a constant food supply. You see, migrations are for a purpose. Whether it be for a more favourable climate, better feeding opportunities or for reproduction, they’re usually a case of going from point A to point B.

 

So if it takes a lot of time and energy, both of which that can be better spent in familiar territory, what’s the point in exploring somewhere new?

 


3. They are, But Nobody Knows

 

Personally, I find this to be extremely unlikely. However, I (along with countless others) would be crazy-excited if it turned out that Great White Sharks in the UK are not just a pipe dream but in fact reality. There are dozens of claims from fishermen and boaters that they’ve first-hand witnessed a Great White Shark. I certainly don’t want to turn anybody against us by saying this, but it it’s no secret that some people like to exaggerate. For example, how many times have you heard someone say:

 

“It was at least this long” *spreads arms as wide as they can*

 

Well, I suspect this is a similar case with the sightings of Great White Sharks in the UK. It’s more than likely mistaken identity mixed with exaggeration. Regardless, it’s still worth investigating though.

Assuming that there are Great White Sharks in the UK, it would be likely that there are very few individuals. Possibly only one or two. By being this rare and having such a huge amount of space to roam, it would partially explain why there are no confirmed sightings. Not to mention, there isn’t any organisation out there that’s actively searching for them (not that they should be).

 

 

Regardless of the true answers, if you love sharks it’s worth remembering that the UK hosts around 30 different species of them. With one species: the Basking Shark being the second biggest in the world. Not to mention, we’ve broken down some fantastic locations to spot them off coasts in the UK. Click to learn about spotting them off two popular spots: Lundy Island or Land’s End.

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3 responses to “Great White Sharks in the UK: Why Don’t They Visit?”

  1. Peter Johnson says:

    There have been a few occurrences of great whites entering uk waters. You need to ask various skippers and a certain marine biologist who was scuba diving at the time. So yes great whites do enter these waters. They are a wild animal and not subject to any theories regarding behaviour.

  2. Rob Brooks says:

    Unfortunately Peter there have been no officially confirmed sightings of Great Whites in the UK. Until there is some hard evidence proving their presence, I can only wish and hope that they are in our waters.

    Thanks for reading!

  3. Gerry says:

    Interesting read and a topic which has caught my attention for a number of years! I took part in a expedition to the outer Hebrides in September 2011 with the UK based shark conservation society to look for great whites and document them. Sadly the windy, squally weather prevented us from reaching the remote Monach Isles which has hundreds / thousands of breeding seals on them (most likely place GWS would hang out). I strongly believe that with a long spell of good, stable weather and a good unbroken chum slick a great white would show up in this remote part of the UK. An Hebridian islander (Phil Harding) joined our expedition at the time. On a sunny, windless day on 27th July 2005 he and 3 others on his 20 foot boat encountered a estimated 16 foot great white off of East coast of North Uist. After talking to face-to-face with Phil (who is an EXTREMELY credible person/witness with an eye for detail) I am in no doubt that his description of the size, colour, shape and behaviour of the shark he saw matched that of a great white.
    The summer off 1999 (Padstow, Cornwall) and 2003 (Ullapool, Western Scotland) also produced 2 extremely credible witnesses whom I have also questioned and am in agreement of what they saw. However Rob is right, until hard evidence is produced with a clear photo, video or corpse then their presence in UK water cannot be 100% confirmed.

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