Great White Sharks Are Congregating Around the Carolinas Before Mating Season Begins

Great white sharks are on the move along the East Coast, with dozens of known individuals making their way toward the waters off the Carolinas and Virginia. This migration south for winter is part of an annual cycle before their mating season kicks off at the end of winter.

Ocearch, an organization that observes marine animals with satellite trackers, has been tagging great whites off the East Coast for over a decade. The team now follows over 80 white sharks in the Atlantic and over the years has built up a picture of their movements throughout the year.

With winter approaching, the sharks that feed in the northern regions, such as Cape Cod, Nova Scotia and Newfoundland, over summer make their way south. There are now at least 30 swimming around off the coasts of Virginia, North and South Carolina—and more are expected over the coming weeks and months.

Bob Hueter, chief scientist with Ocearch, said that over the last five years, the team has gained a fairly good understanding of how these sharks live, where they're going and what they're doing when they get there. He, along with colleagues from various institutions and universities, have published a study into the migratory phases of sharks in the western north Atlantic.

He told Newsweek the population is found from the eastern Gulf of Mexico up to the Canadian Atlantic, then all the way into the open ocean. Large females tend to move further out, reaching to the Mid Atlantic Ridge while they are pregnant, "staying away from the rest of the herd and essentially exploiting resources," Hueter said.

"Eventually they come back to give birth in the nursery area." There is one great white shark nursery just off the coast of New York, where pups are born in the summer. Another winter nursery exists off North Carolina.

The sharks spend most of summer and autumn in the areas around Newfoundland, Nova Scotia and Maine, while their winters are spent off the coasts of Florida, Georgia, and South and North Carolina.

The last unknown is where they go to mate. Hueter said they now believe the white sharks are breeding in late winter and early spring off the coasts of the Carolinas. "Probably a bit offshore," he said. "Not that right up against the coast because if that were the case, they would have been caught doing it. They're just too big to get away with that year after year."

To find out if this is where the great whites are mating, the team is planning an expedition to the region in March. While they don't expect to catch any sharks in the act, the presence of large numbers would indicate "things are happening there," Hueter said.

After mating ends, the males go back to roaming up and down the coasts looking for food, while the females move offshore, before returning to the nurseries to give birth. "Then the whole thing starts all over again," he said. "It's really the last piece of the puzzle—where they mate—then you have their lives tracked."

Hueter and the Ocearch team's goal is to track 100 great whites. They have two expeditions planned to do this, one to the Carolinas in March and the other to the Canadian Atlantic. "Then we'll be done with this with this part of the world for now," he said.

great white shark
Stock image of a great white shark. Researchers believe the population off the east coast of the U.S. and Canada mate at the end of winter off the Carolinas. Getty Images

The team will then travel across to the waters off the U.K. and Ireland to start tracking great whites they believe now live in the area. "I was just reviewing some footage of the possibility of white sharks in U.K. waters." It is thought the presence of seals is making these waters an attractive location. The scientists plan to search along the Atlantic side of Scotland, around the western coast of Ireland then down to Cornwall.

Having spent five years watching the great whites of the north west Atlantic, Hueter says he feels fairly confident in the population. "It's important obviously to keep monitoring the status and health of the population [but] we've got a great situation in the Western North Atlantic... The white shark population is rebuilding, as are some other sharks; coastal shark species as well.

"New sharks are being born. We were fortunate that we started this work, the population here had probably reached its bottom point, So it was already beginning to come back up with management measures that were put into place in the 1990s and early 2000s.

"We were fortunate that they weren't completely gone and difficult to find. And now, with our work we've been able to fill in all the pieces so we know where the critical habitats are so we can keep this trend going."

Correction 12/09/21, 10.55 a.m. ET: This spelling of Bob Hueter's name has been corrected throughout.