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Great White Sharks Make Big News on the Florida Panhandle

Recent reports of the apex predator being caught or seen near Navarre Beach are making us wonder why.

Great White Sharks Make Big News on the Florida Panhandle

Blaine Kenny, owner of the Coastal Worldwide shark fishing and saltwater guide service near Pensacola, had fished all night with his business partner and fishing friend Dylan Wier with no luck. But not long after the sun rose on Jan. 31, 2024 at Navarre Beach, Fla., this estimated 1,200-pound great white shark took their bait and an hour long fight was on. (Photo courtesy of Blaine Kenny)

Sharks are nothing new in the Sunshine State, where anglers seek them out on a regular basis at the end of a rod and reel or fly rod. Over the past month, sharks are making headlines once again, albeit this time a different species than Floridians are used to hearing about.

Cue the ominous theme music from "Jaws," because it’s the great white shark, one of the ocean’s apex predators but one that isn’t seen in Florida as frequently as other shark species like hammerheads, bulls, blacktips, spinners, or lemons. Perhaps even more unusual is that, according two recent reports, great whites have been seen at the Panhandle beach community in Navarre, Fla., an Emerald Coast jewel situated between Pensacola and Destin.

photos of great white shark released
The anglers landed the giant shark as onlookers walked the beach and then carefully released it back into the Gulf of Mexico. (Photos courtesy of Blaine Kenny)

Huge Great White Caught, Released

The first report came on an otherwise quiet wintertime day at the end of January when saltwater anglers Blaine Kinney and Dylan Wier caught and released a huge great white shark (Carcharodon carcharias) off the snow-white sands of Navarre Beach. It was an eye-opening catch for sure, for both Kinney and Wier, as well as those walking the beach that morning.

The Miami Herald reported Kenny, owner of Coastal Worldwide, and his fishing and business partner Wier combined to catch and release a great white estimated at 1,200 pounds on Jan. 31 in front of astonished onlookers.

Kenny was the angler behind the reel not long after sunup when there was a massive take of what was described as "the head of massive yellowfin tuna.” The pair of anglers and dedicated shark conservationists could not be prepared for what was suddenly at the other end of the line.

In what was an hour-long fight in bright sunlight, the action was captured in a 25-minute long video on the angler's YouTube channel, a video that used high-definition video and drone footage to capture the arduous process of battling one of the rarest creatures that an angler will find at the end of the line.

As the New York Post reported, it was also a memorable experience for both Kenny and Weir.

“I’ve said it so many times before,” said Kenny in the NY Post report. “But truly, truly words cannot describe the feeling of this fish right here.”

There were a few anxious moments during the battle, as the YouTube video and the Coastal Worldwide social-media accounts confirmed. That includes one moment when the anglers thought the giant shark had actually gotten off.




"Talk about the highs and lows of fishing all in one clip," says the pair of anglers on their Instagram account. "For those of you that fish know that feeling between a slack and that “pop” of the hook or line. We thought we lost the fish of a lifetime, but by some miracle, she was still attached and we got to close out the fight with a true apex predator."

Angling catches of great white sharks are rare just about anywhere given the shark’s conservation status and the strict rules that surround the species. It is illegal to fish for great whites in many places, and when they are found at the end of an angler’s line, some spots require the line to be cut.

But in other locations, an occasional catch-and-release can happen as Kenny and Wier recently proved.

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The same pair of anglers had another hook-up with a great white shark as they fished in nearby coastal Alabama during the early morning hours of March 7, 2023. After a 32-minute fight at Orange Beach, the pair of anglers landed and released an 11-foot juvenile great white shark. Incidentally, that shark is believed to be the first great white to ever be landed along an Alabama beach.

Another Navarre Beach Great White

shark found on beach
A 1,500-pound great white shark was found washed up on Navarre Beach. (Photo courtesy of Navarre Beach Fire Rescue)

If the recent catch at Navarre Beach didn’t confirm great white sharks are showing up in Gulf waters more frequently, then the startling news of another great white shark at the same Panhandle hamlet last week just might. That story broke on Friday, Feb. 23, when social-media reports showed that the Navarre Beach Fire Rescue was at work to remove a deceased shark estimated at 13 to 15 feet in length and having a weight of 1,500 pounds.

According to the South Santa Rosa News on Facebook, a necropsy was performed on the shark, which had initially been reported last week as being pregnant. The necropsy, however, disproved that notion.

"The female was around 30 years old and measured 15.1 feet," reported the news site after interviewing Heather Moncrief-Cox, a fisheries biologist with the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration and a scientist who participated in the necropsy.

According to Moncrief-Cox, the female was not pregnant as earlier reports had suggested and was, in fact, still considered immature. "Based on the lack of development of her oocytes, it would have been another year or two before she would have even been capable of becoming pregnant," Moncrief-Cox told the Santa Rosa County news site.

Additionally, Moncrief-Cox stated the blood in the shark's mouth was from lividity, which explains the red coloration of its skin as seen in some of the photographs that surfaced: "Once the heart stops pumping blood, it beings to settle to lower portions of the body and can start seeping out of places like the mouth," she said.

Was it the same shark that was hooked at Navarre Beach weeks earlier by Kenny and Wier? The Santa Rosa News said despite speculation that it might be—and a report in the Pensacola News Journal that there were hooks discovered in the shark's mouth—it was apparently not the same great white shark since the smaller one caught a few weeks ago had a scar on its back from an apparent propeller injury.

shark washed up on beach
Photos of a large great white shark at Navarre Beach on Feb. 23. (Photos courtesy of Navarre Beach Fire Rescue)

Wintering at the Gulf

So why the sudden surge in great white shark encounters at Navarre Beach? Well, while the species is certainly not common, the beleaguered great white has been making a bit of a comeback in recent years. And apparently, a good number of these Eastern seaboard great whites are increasingly spending their winters in the Gulf of Mexico.

Why is that the case? Because, like the tourists that leave their homes up north to avoid Old Man Winter and find some comfortable weather on a Florida beach, great whites are something of snowbird travelers too, according to one prominent biologist.

"And then they’ll leave, about the same time after Easter, and start heading north," said Ocearch chief scientist and shark researcher Dr. Bob Hueter in a recent report by the 10 Tampa Bay television news station.

There are some things worth noting here, one being that as big as these two great white sharks are to a pair of anglers and to beachcombers, they aren’t that big when compared to the species maximum size specimens.

One of those is a completely preserved female great white specimen on display at the Museum of Zoology in Lausanne, Switzerland. It was nearly 20 feet in length and was estimated to weigh 4,410 pounds. Another north of 3,000 pounds was reported off Montauk, N.Y., and rumors of even bigger great whites persist.

What If You Hook One?

From an angling standpoint, Alfred Dean has the International Game Fish Association all-tackle world record for the species, a 2,664-pound great white caught on 80-pound line on April 21, 1959. That record is not only the largest great white shark ever caught by an angler, but it is also the largest tackle-caught fish of any kind ever recognized by the IGFA.

What should you do in the unlikely event that you find yourself hooked up with a great white shark at the end of your line? Keeping in mind that great whites are a prohibited species, the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission notes in its shore-based shark fishing rules that "Prohibited shark species must remain in the water with the gills submerged when fishing from shore or from a vessel” and that "Prohibited shark species must be released without delay when fishing from the shore."

Will we see more great white catches in Florida in the years ahead? Perhaps, because even though they typically roam in colder water further north, they aren't completely absent from southern waters as the recent Navarre Beach encounters may indicate.

Other reports confirm the same thing, including one near St. Augustine right after Christmas, a great white that was a 1,437-pound tagged specimen that pinged detection equipment on Dec. 30, 2023, according to OCEARCH.

That great white was originally tagged off Nova Scotia in Sept. 2020. And another great white was recently detected near Stuart, the home office location for Florida Sportsman.

In the end, these apex predators found prowling about Florida’s coastal waters are fascinating creatures that deserve our respect. That’s certainly true from a safety standpoint, but it’s also true even if we’re in a boat and find ourselves watching them silently glide by.

And it’s especially true on a quiet Panhandle beach in the winter months, where Navarre Beach is suddenly the talk of the world, at least where great white sharks are concerned.

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