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Do Great White Sharks Really Get as Big as Jaws?

We can’t help but wonder if Steven Spielberg’s monster shark might really be out there.

By Cassidy Ward

Great white sharks are plenty big without exaggerating their size. They’re not called the moderate white shark, after all. So, when Peter Benchley wrote his blockbuster novel, Jaws, he didn’t need to stretch reality that much to make his monster. The shark in the novel comes in at about 20 feet from tip to tail, and Steven Spielberg added another five just for flare, when he made the movie.

Given what we know (and, perhaps more importantly, what we don't know) about white sharks and the oceans, we can’t help but wonder if Spielberg’s monster shark might really be out there.

Can Great White Sharks Really Get as Big as Jaws?

Robert Shaw struggles in a shark's mouth in Jaws (1975)

When our band of shark hunters get their first good look at their shark, Hooper (Richard Dreyfuss) exclaims that it’s a twenty-footer. Quint, our grizzled boat captain (played definitively by Robert Shaw) replies, “Twenty-five. Three tons of him.”

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It’s important to note that Quint is making an estimate based on the incomplete information he has and his knowledge of sharks. That’s the same things scientists often do with sharks in the water. In most cases, you can't pull a tape measure and get an accurate reading, so you make an educated guess based on what you can see and what you already know. Quint also made a critical mistake here, in his estimation. If it really were a 25-foot shark, it almost certainly wouldn’t be male.

Outside of the movies, male great whites average about 12 feet, while female white sharks average 16 feet. Of course, those are averages and there are outliers on any bell curve. Individual sharks have been observed with estimated lengths approaching or exceeding 20 feet. Turns out, Benchley’s shark may have been uncommonly, but not impossibly large.

The Largest Great White Shark on Record

Nailing down the world record for largest documented great white isn’t as straightforward as you might think. See, as recently as a couple of centuries ago, people reported white sharks exceeding 30 feet, but none that large have been observed in the modern era. Those reports are generally considered to have been exaggerations.

The largest confirmed white sharks come in right around 20 or 21 feet, firmly in the realm of Benchley’s aquatic creature. The current top contender for the white shark crown is a female named Deep Blue. It’s unlikely she’s the largest great white to have ever lived, but it’s just possible she’s the largest alive today.

Much like Quint’s size estimate, researchers aren’t able to get precise measurements of Deep Blue’s size, resulting in a small range of possible sizes. On the low end, she is estimated to be between 18 and 19 feet long, but other estimates put her at 6.1 meters, just over 20 feet. She’s believed to be roughly 50 years old and 2.5 tons (5,000 pounds) of pure muscle and teeth.

RELATED: Canadian Fisherman Accidentally Catches Great White on Hook - and On Camera

Deep Blue was first encountered in 2014 by marine biologists working in the waters off Guadalupe Island, Mexico. Researchers noted at the time that she was non-aggressive, even toward humans and dolphins in the water alongside her. She has been spotted several times since, once opportunistically feeding on a whale carcass, at other times interacting with divers unprotected in the water.

It’s interesting to note that the closest thing to Jaws we have found is the furthest thing from Jaws. By all accounts, Deep Blue is pretty chill, even while being evolution’s perfect killing machine. Which isn’t to say we recommend jumping into the water with her. Leave that to the professionals.

You can, however, jump into a summer classic with Jaws, available from Universal Pictures!

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