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Mystery behind video of great white shark off Santa Barbara County. Is it a rarely seen newborn?

An image of the youg shark which was captured on video off the Santa Barbara County coast last summer.
 Carlos Gauna
The Malibu Artist
An image of the youg shark which was captured on video off the Santa Barbara County coast last summer.

Researchers differ on whether it's the first newborn captured on video. But, young great whites aren't unusual off the Central and South Coasts.

It’s video shot off the Santa Barbara County coastline that’s grabbed global attention. It’s video of a young great white shark. Some researchers suggest it could be landmark video, showing a newborn for the first time, with an afterbirth white film coming from it. Other say it might be just a young shark with a skin disorder.

"We know that very young white sharks show up at Southern California beaches," said Dr. Chris Lowe, who is a marine biology professor, and director of the Cal State Long Beach Shark Lab.

"What's interesting is the white film on the animal, and we don't know what that is," said Lowe. But, he noted that during his lab's research, they've tagged about 20 great whites the same size or even smaller than the one seen in the video.

Lowe said despite all the interest in the video linked to a research paper on great whites, we simply don't have an answer to the question based on what's seen in the video.

He said the Central and South Coasts are prime great white habitat, so seeing a young shark off Santa Barbara isn’t unusual.

"All of the Southern California Coast is good nursery habitat for white sharks, and we know that from fishing records, and from our tagging and tracking data," said Lowe. "What's interesting is these sharks set up these nursing hot spots areas, where individuals hang out there for weeks to months at a time." He said those hot spots may stay hot for a couple of years, and then go cold, because the sharks find a new spot. It's something they are trying to better understand.

The researcher and his lab have been studying great whites for decades. He said we are learning more about a major question: Whether they have home turf, so to speak or whether they are constantly migrating.

"It's an interesting question, and it turns out it's a little of both," said Lowe. "They like a particular beach, and like I said will hang out there for weeks, or months," said Lowe. "We have tagging data going back almost ten years showing this behavior. But then, they'll migrate, sometimes thousands of miles, and then the following season come back. 

Lowe said when the sharks get bigger, where they live changes. "Once they get to be about ten feet long, is when we start to see them do that offshore migration, where they'll go sometimes all the way to Hawaii, spend eight months to a year and a half there, and then return to the Southern California coast.

He said we'll see a lot of juvenile sharks off our coast starting in April, until around October and November. But, because we've had mild winters, many of the them have been staying in the region. Adult females start showing up in the spring, and big males will arrive later in the summer. He said we might seem them along the Santa Barbara coast, what they really love the Channel Islands "That's where all the good eats are...where the seals, and sea lions are found," said Lowe.

The researcher said we are actually answering some of the big questions about the lives of great whites. They're using different kinds of technology to track the sharks, to help us lean more about their lifestyle.

Great whites have long been the most feared creatures in the ocean, especially with movies like Jaws portraying them as predators with a taste for people. But, Lowe says thanks to research in the last decade, many are understanding that simply isn’t true.

He said as they track the sharks, they've shown that there are literally great whites swimming under surfers every day at our beaches, yet there is no interaction. He said as they share this data, it's showing people that there is nothing to fear, and that the great whites are more interesting in living their lives than interacting with people.

But, Lowe said their research efforts are in jeopardy. Lowe said the current state grant funding which keeps the lab open runs out this year. The researcher says if it isn’t renewed, or they can't find additional support, they will have to begin laying off staff this spring. 

Lance Orozco has been News Director of KCLU since 2001, providing award-winning coverage of some of the biggest news events in the region, including the Thomas and Woolsey brush fires, the deadly Montecito debris flow, the Borderline Bar and Grill attack, and Ronald Reagan's funeral.