A decaying sperm whale carcass has been floating in Hawaiian waters since Thursday, drawing in schools of hungry tiger sharks. But compared to the scene’s newest visitors, they look positively puny.
On Sunday, divers spotted a famously huge great white shark named “Deep Blue” feeding on the whale near Oahu. The rare sighting was reported by HawaiiNewsNow based on footage shot by local divers.
“If you asked me a few days ago what the most amazing thing I’ve ever seen in Hawaiian waters the answer probably would be pretty different,” freediver Kimberly Jeffries, who first saw the shark, wrote on Facebook.
“If you asked me yesterday the answer would be freediving with Deep Blue, a great white, the largest ever documented, who was last seen in 2013 in Mexico,” Jeffries added.
In a Facebook post, fellow diver Mark Mohler said at least three great whites were visible, and that Deep Blue could only be seen on Sunday.
"Based on photos I can confirm there have been three distinct females recorded over the past few days," Jeffries told Motherboard in an email.
Deep Blue became an icon several years ago during Shark Week on the Discovery Channel, though her remarkable size and age—roughly 20 feet long and 50 years old, according to many media reports—are up for debate.
Her sensational reputation as the “biggest” shark on record can be attributed to a 2014 Shark Week episode (shot in 2013) in which Mauricio Hoyos Padilla, director of the shark nonprofit Pelagios-Kakunjá, and others filmed the large female near Mexico’s Guadalupe Island. In 2015, Padilla wrote on Facebook that she was “the biggest white shark ever seen in front of the cages in Guadalupe Island,” which somehow became “the largest great white shark ever caught on film.”
Deep Blue is indeed very large, but shark researchers can’t say for sure that she’s the largest.
“I lead the white shark research project at Guadalupe Island and first documented Deep Blue in 1999, 20 years ago,” Michael Domeier, president and executive director of the Marine Conservation Science Institute, told Motherboard in an email.
“The claim that she is the largest white shark in the world is just a Discovery Channel gimmick,” Domeier added. “Deep Blue has never been measured, so how could anyone make that statement?” (He cited another huge shark approaching Hawaii named “Murphy Jean,” described as “massively girthy/fat.”)
As for Deep Blue’s age, Domeier said we can only estimate.
“Deep Blue was an adult when we first encountered her 20 years ago,” Domeier said. “So she is likely at least 40 years old, possibly older. Unfortunately the only way to accurately age a white shark is to kill it and look at the rings on the vertebrae, but no mystery is worth solving at that price!”
The shark’s measurements were similarly questioned by George Burgess, director emeritus at the Florida of Natural History’s Florida Program for Shark Research.
“It’s a big girl,” Burgess told Motherboard over the phone. “Looks like maybe 18 feet. Hyperbole is part of Shark Week so you gotta be worried about some of the facts.”
So is the shark in Hawaii really Deep Blue? Domeier and divers say yes.
Mohler wrote on Facebook that the identity of Deep Blue was confirmed “with the white shark authority, SharkPix.com,” a repository of shark photos managed by hobbyist wildlife photographer George Probst who works with researchers to ID great whites.
Great whites possess unique pigment patterns that are commonly used to identify them.
“The line of demarcation between the white color on the underside and the grey color on the upper side is like a fingerprint,” he explained. “We particularly look at the pattern of demarcation near the gills, the pelvic fins and the caudal fin (tail).”
Great whites are a rare sight in Hawaii, but they’re not unheard of; their presence is even documented in Native Hawaiian ceremonial objects. Satellite tracking data suggests that most originate near California and Mexico, and that female sharks will roam the deep while pregnant before returning to the coast to give birth.
Domeier theorized that Deep Blue may be one of these pregnant sharks. “She has likely been at sea since the late fall of 2017, [for the gestation period,]” he speculated. “She will give birth to 8 to 12 pups this spring, and then return to Guadalupe Island in the fall to mate and start the cycle over again.”
Burgess agreed that she could be pregnant. Or perhaps Deep Blue’s belly is simply a food gut. Maybe she’s “fartin’ like mad,” he added.
On Saturday, local and federal authorities towed the sperm whale 15 miles offshore after it drifted onto a reef. People have been asked to stay away from the carcass. Signs now warn beachgoers that “whale material” could be in the area.
Both Domeier and Burgess discouraged thrillseekers from diving with the sharks.
“Most of the time, that shark won’t turn around and bite you,” Burgess said.
“But when it does, you’ll end up as a statistic on the International Shark Attack File, and the news headline won’t be ‘Stupid human dies chasing a 20 foot shark,’” Burgess added. “It will be ‘Shark kills human,’ and that activity is very bad for conservation efforts.”