There’s been some confusion over the years whether or not a great white shark was caught off Ucluelet in 2005. Specifically, it’s this image, of what appears to be a large great white, dead and hoisted on the wharf. Over the years this image has been linked to rumours of a great white caught in Ucluelet, South Africa, Australia and other spots you’d typically link with great white sharks.
Like any good yarn, it just refuses to go away. You’ll see it here, mentioned in 2007, and again last year on Facebook (Search for Great White Shark Ucluelet in May 2015) and the same image pops up yet again with another story of how it was caught ‘just this week off Vancouver Island’.
The truth of the picture is a little more mundane – and sadder – than the reports you’ve heard. The shark is actually a very large mako shark, caught off Yarmouth Nova Scotia in a fishing derby back in 2004, and the picture taken by local reporter Carla Allen, who sold rights to the picture after she took it.
The image took a life of its own after Allen sold her right to it. To this day, Google ‘Great White shark Tofino, Ucluelet or Vancouver Island’ and the image pops up – despite that it was actually taken on the other side of Canada. Read Allen’s book, Shark on the Line for the full story of the image and the shark who died to have it taken.
So Are There Great White Sharks in Tofino?
Well here’s the thing. The great white shark in this picture is a mako, and on the other side of Canada…BUT…great white sharks have been documented off Tofino before. There’s photographic evidence of two great whites in these parts – both juveniles, at the BC Shark Reports blog, between 2005 and 2008.
The first is an image of a dead porpoise with white shark bites that washed up on McKenzie beach taken by local park ranger Tanya Dowdall, and verified as being done by a juvenile great white shark by the ReefQuest Centre for Shark Research.
The second image shows a stellar sea lion, also with white shark bites, in Barkley Sound and confirmed by renowned shark expert Ralph Collier, who you’ve probably seen on Shark Week over the years.
Great Whites Are VERY Rare Off BC
Now before you get all Chief Brody circa 1975 on us, don’t panic. Great white sharks are exceptionally rare off BC. According to the BC Sharks blog, there were just 14 confirmed sightings of Whitey of the Pacific Coast of Canada between 1961 and 2004, though there were 8 unconfirmed sightings of great whites off western Vancouver Island between 2000 and 2010.
Most were by surfers and fishermen.
Bear in mind that it would be fairly easy to confuse a great white with a salmon shark, which belong to the same family, and look fairly similar. Salmon sharks, unlike great whites, are fairly common off Vancouver Island.
And beyond that, our population of orcas might further dissuade great white sharks from taking residence in BC waters.
Still, they’ve been here before. I’d put your chances of seeing a great white shark off Tofino at pretty close to zero, but several dead white sharks have washed up on the Queen Charlottes (now Haida Gwaii), and a Department of Fisheries report suggests our white friends may visit Graham Island more often than we think.
The Sharks of BC
With all this in mind, BC is actually quite rich in shark species. We’ve got dogfish, obviously, but also blue sharks, threshers, pacific sleeper sharks and others – 14 shark species have been documented off British Columbia, including the:
Blue Shark – The classic ‘shark’ with dorsal fin and sleek shape. Several years ago, researchers found a hot spot of blue sharks in BC – again, off the Queen Charlottes.
Salmon Shark – This little guy looks like a mini great white and is quite common off Vancouver Island.
Pacific Sleeper Shark – Researchers think the Pacific Sleeper Shark may actually be related to the Greenland Shark of Eastern Canada. It’s a large, slow-moving shark that tends to live in deeper waters. Lousy for them, they’re a favorite prey for killer whales in British Columbia.
Basking Shark – The second biggest fish on the planet (after the whale shark) is a true gentle giant, characterized by its huge gaping mouth and slow-moving behaviour. We used to get basking sharks by the hundreds off BC, but a government eradication program from the 1940s to early 70s decimated those numbers.
Great White Shark – You know why you’re here, and the answer is yes, great white sharks have been seen off BC. They’re very rare here though, and if you really want to see a great white shark in Canada, you’ve got a better chance of seeing one off Sable Island in Nova Scotia.
I’ll close this post with a short documentary by Discovery Channel Canada on the sharks of Tofino. It’s not so much about great white sharks off Tofino, per se, but instead talks about interactions between sharks, surfers and the folks of the area. Yes, we’ve got sharks in Tofino and off Vancouver Island people. You’ve got a slim chance of seeing one, but they’re out there, maintaining balance in the marine ecosystem of the BC coast.
*Editor’s Note* August 14, 2013 – A lot of back and forth on whether it’s a mako or great white shark. What do YOU think? Share your opinion in this poll