The great white shark occupies a cosmopolitan range throughout temperate oceans and is also occasionally found in the tropics. In Australia, its range extends primarily from Moreton Bay in Southern Queensland, around the southern coastline to the North West Cape of Western Australia.
Although it is most commonly found in coastal and shelf waters, it has also been found to dwell offshore, swimming at depths of up 700m to and migrating great distances of up to 3800km. It is most commonly encountered around coastal waters inhabited by pinnipeds and around offshore reefs. They seem to prefer waters with a temperature of 15-22°C although the range in which it has been recorded varies from 4-27°C.
Records of white sharks show them to inhabit Australia, New Zealand, South Africa, the Mediterranean and Red Seas, northern coasts of France and Spain, Portugal, the North-West coast of Africa, Japan, Chile and both coasts of temperate North America, most notably off the coast of California.
When bottom depths are less than 30m, swimming depth tends to be strongly correlated with bottom depth but no correlations seem apparent for depths greater than this (Goldman and Anderson, 1999). Sharks tend to remain less than 10m from the bottom in these shallower waters which would increase their crypsis from prey at the surface. It could be that water visibility would affect the swimming depth with reduced clarity forcing the shark to swim closer to the surface in order to locate prey. It is thought therefore that swimming depth is an important factor in the dynamics of predatory behaviour on pinnipeds (Goldman et al, 1996).
There appears to be two types of long-term shark movements, the nomadic spatial behaviour and the site fidelity, or repetitive occurrence, spatial behaviour. The numbers of nomadic and resident sharks in an area on any given day can fluctuate as the sharks are forever moving and seldom remain close to observers (Fergusson, 2001).
In Australia, some work has been conducted to determine the movements of Great Whites off the South Australian coastline. One shark was found to remain at the Neptune Islands until early September before moving into the shallower waters of the Spencer Gulf and then travelling west to the Great Australian Bight in October (Bruce, 1992). Archival tags used by the CSIRO in 1999 showed that White sharks showed frequent cycling between the bottom and the surface both at night and during the day. Although the maximum depth attained was 94m during the period of tracking, the shark was seen to mostly remain at depths of less than 20m, with 10% of the time spent at the surface (Bruce, 1999). This study also showed that the shark, a female, remained in the South Australian Gulfs until late October before rapidly moving to the Great Australian Bight within a ten day period.
Satellite tagging has also been conducted at the islands off California. The results of theirs study confirmed that white shark appear in autumn just as the young elephant seals arrive to rest prior to mating. Whilst in the area, sharks generally remained at depths shallower than 30 meters, swimming in waters ranging from 10-14ºC.
In 2002, scientists implanted six sharks from the Farallones with satellite tags. Whilst the sharks were in coastal waters, it was found that they spent the majority of their time swimming between the surface and 30m depth with the deepest depth obtained being 75m (Boustany et al, 2002). This resulted in a temperature range of 10-14ºC. However, in this ground-breaking study, they discovered that this species is not nearly as coastal as was previously thought and actually appears to have a pelagic phase to its life cycle. In the study, one male migrated from the tag site 3,800 kilometres to the Hawaiian island of Kahoolawe, travelling at an average of 71 kilometres a day and then remaining in Hawaii for winter and spring. Two females and a male were tracked migrating to the subtropical eastern Pacific, spending several months in offshore pelagic waters, and inhabiting depths of up to 660m, although more generally 300-500m. As the shark moved offshore, the temperatures experienced ranged from 26ºC in surface waters to 4.8ºC at depth (Boustany et al, 2002).