"It's a baby white!"

That triumphant shout is how researchers hailed their first juvenile great white shark tagged off the New York coast last month. The young female was named "Montauk", in honour of the nearby town at the tip of Long Island – and she provided a big clue that scientists may have finally found the spot where great whites give birth in the North Atlantic Ocean. 

Montauk Shark 2016 09 05
Montauk measured in at just 1.2 metres (4ft) and weighed 23kg (50lbs). Image: OCEARCH

Little is known about great white shark reproduction, but scientists have suspected for years that the New York area might be where babies are born and grow up. Young sharks are commonly reported in these waters, and mature females have been known to visit during the summer months, which is when birthing season is thought to occur.

To find out more, marine research organisation OCEARCH chose August 2016 for their first expedition to track down young sharks in New York waters. The mission was a bit of a long shot, according to OCEARCH founder Chris Fischer. "When we went up there everybody said, 'There's no way you're getting a baby white shark,'" he told me.

But it turns out the naysayers were wrong. The crew captured and tagged not one, but nine baby whites. Among them was "Hudson", a five-foot male caught the day after Montauk.

Some of the youngsters were just about as small as great whites get, their umbilical scars still unhealed. Researchers refer to these juveniles as "young-of-the-year", which indicates they were born in the latest birthing season. "We were just shocked at the abundance of young-of-the-year there," Fischer said. "It's kind of a dream-come-true scenario."

The high number of newborns is a good indication that shark moms are giving birth somewhere nearby, and their offspring are growing up here. A young shark needs plenty of food, but it also needs to be safe from predators, especially adult great whites. The shallow oceans around New York may be the perfect nursery. For researchers wanting to conserve these marine predators, understanding where the sharks spend their early years is crucial.

As apex predators, great whites have a huge impact on the balance of marine ecosystems. Not only do they control the population size of other sea life, but by feeding on weak or sick individuals they also help prevent the spread of disease. "No sharks, no fish," said Fischer. "Really all we're trying to do is make sure our great-great-grandchildren are able to enjoy a fish sandwich." 

Hudson Shark With Tag 2016 09 05
Like the other young sharks, Hudson was fitted with a tracker to allow scientists to monitor his movements. Image: OCEARCH

The nine young-of-the-year found on this expedition are a big deal for shark science. Each one provided blood and tissue samples, which scientists can use to find out if these babies are related to each other, or to any of the adult sharks encountered in the area. The babies were also fitted with trackers, which will allow scientists to follow their movements as they grow. They were also all given names in honour of New York, including Gotham and Manhattan.

One of the biggest challenges for shark conservation has been overcoming negative perceptions of these incredible predators. Movies like Jaws (and a certain Blake Lively blockbuster), as well as countless sensationalised news stories, have not helped their public image. But more and more, we're beginning to talk about sharks from a place of fascination instead of fear. 

OCEARCH’s website allows anyone in the world to follow these animals as they are tracked across the ocean, so local news outlets can get excited when a famous shark comes to visit. The big fish are even on social media: the famous Mary Lee has over 100,000 followers!

"I think we have made enormous leaps forward in shifting the conversation around sharks," Fischer said. "[People] should be terrified of an ocean that's not full of sharks."


Top header image: Shutterstock