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Great White Sharks More Common and More Chill Than We Thought

We just don't notice when they're chill, which is kind of the point.

By Cassidy Ward

In the summer of 1975, Steven Spielberg terrified the world with his vision of a killer shark hunting in the waters off New England, in the seminal summer blockbuster, Jaws. Now, decades later and on the other side of the country, scientists are discovering that white shark encounters are way more common than we realized.

Scientists are studying great white sharks from the air

A new study from researchers at California State University, Long Beach found that some spots along the California coastline almost always have sharks. Researchers spent two years patrolling dozens of beaches along the California coast, using uncrewed aerial vehicles (UAVs) commonly known as drones.

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Two spots in particular, in central San Diego and southern Santa Barbara County, were hotspots for young white sharks, between the ages of one and five years. Young sharks come into coastal areas and gather to hunt stingrays and small fish. Historically, they would stay in these aggregation spots for several years before heading out to deeper waters. At the two hotspot locations, researchers found that white sharks were swimming in close proximity to people 97% of the time.

“The juvenile white sharks were often observed within 50 yards of where the waves break, putting surfers and stand-up paddle boarders in the closest proximity to sharks at the aggregation sites. Most of the time water users didn’t even know the sharks were there, but we could easily see them from the air,” Patrick Rex, a lab technician at Cal State’s Shark Lab, said in a statement.

Liz Great White Shark GETTY

Importantly, no shark bites were reported in the area during the two-year study period, despite near constant interactions between people and sharks. While the findings do make it clear that sharks are around considerably more than we previously thought, it also underscores how seldom shark attacks occur. They have plenty of opportunity to attack on their home turf, and they almost never take it.

Researchers indicated that sharks mostly ignore what’s going on at the surface, and they may even be learning that humans are “not food,” though significantly more research is needed before scientists can confirm that hypothesis.

RELATED: Steven Spielberg 'truly' regrets demonization of sharks and harmful sport fishing caused by 'Jaws'

The study also shook up some of the historical assumptions we’ve had about sharks, particularly regarding when sharks are in certain areas and for how long. The conventional wisdom has been that sharks come into coastal areas when the water is warm, to enjoy the buffet, but head elsewhere when the weather gets cooler. However, researchers observed that some sharks stick around all year and never leave for deeper waters.

As climate change raises global ocean temperatures and rewrites the oceanic ecosystem, it’s possible that sharks will spend even more time in areas populated by people. Fortunately, they seem barely interested in us most of the time. If you’re looking for a killer shark, you’ll have a better shot finding it in the movies than at the beach.

Catch the entire Jaws series, available now from Universal Pictures.