Researchers spotted a baby great white for the first time ever, and it could help solve one of shark science's biggest mysteries

A newborn white shark swims in green water
For what may be the first time, footage shows a baby white shark swimming off the coast of California.Carlos Gauna/The Malibu Artist
  • Spotting a baby great white in the wild is practically unheard of.

  • A filmmaker's drone recorded what appeared to be a baby off the coast of California.

  • Researchers have long wanted to know where the sharks give birth, and the footage could offer clues.

Last summer, a drone captured footage of a ghostly white shark near the coast of Santa Barbara, California. It turned out to be an extremely rare sighting of a baby white shark, and its appearance could help scientists solve some big mysteries.

While using a drone to film the waters off of California, wildlife filmmaker Carlos Gauna recorded the small shark swimming, alone. Researchers estimate that the shark was approximately 5 feet long — roughly a third the size of an adult — with rounded fins, indicating it was still young.

Phillip Sternes, a doctoral student at the University of California, Riverside, was looking for sharks with Gauna when they got the footage.

"[N]o one's seen a birth or a newborn pup in the wild," Sternes said in a press release. "This may well be the first evidence we have of a pup in the wild, making this a definitive birthing location."

Great whites give birth to live pups instead of laying eggs like some other shark species. Scientists don't know where they do so, though.

Since great whites don't thrive in captivity, most knowledge about the babies comes from dead, pregnant sharks that wash up on beaches.

Sharks that appeared to be pregnant have been seen in the area, and this could help researchers pinpoint where the babies are born.

A strange white color

Despite their name, white sharks are usually gray and white. The reason for this newborn's all-white color is uncertain.

In a paper published in the peer-reviewed Environmental Biology of Fishes journal, Gauna and Sternes suggest two possibilities. Either the shark has an unknown skin condition that caused the discoloration or it was shedding uterine milk.

Pregnant white sharks produce the yellowish fluid, uterine milk, to provide nutrition for the developing embryo. It may have stuck to the baby's skin after birth.

"Observations of free-swimming newborn white sharks are extremely rare," Tobey Curtis, a National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration shark scientist who didn't participate in the research, told Science.

Scientists have tracked female white sharks, but it was "nearly impossible to be in the exact right place at the exact right time to observe and document the moment of birth," Curtis said.

While great whites are one of the ocean's top predators, they're also considered vulnerable to extinction. Finding their birthing center could help protect them, Curtis said.

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