Divers get up close and personal with largest great white shark

Photograph: @Juansharks/Juan Oliphant/AFP/Getty Images

By Laura Perry

Images of Deep Blue – the largest great white shark in the world – took the internet by storm in January. But is touching a 6-metre apex predator ever a good idea? And what is being done to help protect these real-life sea monsters?

The film ‘Deep Blue Sea’ turns 19 this year, but Deep Blue – the largest known great white shark in the world – is pushing 50. Some extraordinary images of a mammoth great white suspected to be Deep Blue went viral in January, when the 6-metre predator provoked a media response typical of our love-hate relationship with sharks. In a collection of pictures and video shot in Hawai’i by Juan Oliphant, we see a free-diver swimming alongside – and touching – the huge great white.

While the public responded with both awe and horror, the scientific community was also divided: should divers ever be touching sharks, even to raise awareness? Many marine biologists disapproved, with the founding director of the Marine Conservation Science Institute, Michael Domeier, tweeting ‘the number 1 rule of shark diving […] is DON’T TOUCH THE SHARKS!’. Others argued that negative public perception is actively killing sharks, and highly experienced shark divers like Oliphant act as ambassadors for their conservation.

The International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN) lists great whites as Vulnerable, but they receive no federal protection in the US. Whilst Hawai’i has strict legislature regarding finning, sharks are still poorly protected. But this could be about to change: a bill sponsored by Hawai’ian state senator Mike Gabbard will enforce major financial penalties to anyone harming sharks or rays, if passed by the House. We still know very little about great whites; population size, trends, and movement are key questions. Whilst they were previously thought to be rare visitors to warmer waters, mounting evidence suggests these sojourns are relatively common, particularly among gestating females, who may be choosing to complete their pregnancies in warmer waters. Pregnant females are as big as great whites get, so if Deep Blue and her peers do keep visiting, one thing is sure: Hawai’i’s marine biologists will need a bigger boat.