No “Jaws” jokes please, say aquarium staff, this is serious.
Never before has the health and well-being of a great white shark
been taken so seriously.
For the first time ever, a white shark is being successfully
held in captivity and exhibited with other fish, enabling research
that’s never been done before on one of the ocean’s most notorious
creatures. Thankfully, this young female has been eating, and
essentially ignoring the other fish in her tank at the Monterey Bay
Exceeding their wildest expectations, she ate four wild-caught
salmon fillets the very first day on exhibit. There are currently
no other white sharks on display in the world, largely because
getting them to eat what’s fed to them has always been a challenge
for aquariums who’ve tried. No aquarium has ever been able to
exhibit one for more than 16 days: she’s made it for a month
The 4-foot-4-inch, 62 lb. beauty is happily swimming in circles
with another other 1500 or so fish, successfully cohabitating with
hundreds of sardines and anchovies (another experiment) and another
75 or so, consisting of Galapagos, hammerhead and soupfin sharks,
huge tunas, sea turtles, ocean sun fish, stingrays and barracudas.
She likes to hang out at the top of the million-gallon Outer Bay
tank, specifically designed for open ocean animals, and offering
two floors of viewing area currently crowded with tourists waiting
to see her circle back before disappearing again into the dark
recesses of the tank.
“She doesn’t seem to really want to mess around with others,”
said Joan Daughtrey, an aquarium volunteer. “She bumped into a tuna
the other day and they both ran quickly.”
At the aquarium since Sept. 15, the shark had been held in a
four-million gallon ocean pen since Aug. 20 to acclimate to
captivity after being caught by a halibut fisherman offshore from
Malibu. She was then hauled to Monterey in a 3,000-gallon tanker
truck which had been essentially waiting for a shark to bring back
for research, according to Daughtrey. Aquarium staff monitored the
shark in the ocean pen first to determine if she was a good
candidate to try and exhibit.
The shark is now being studied as part of a three year research
project on sharks. Researchers have no firm idea how old she is,
because they don’t know how quickly white sharks grow. She is one
of ‘the young of the year’, meaning she’s presumed to be under 12
months old. They are monitoring her around-the-clock and recording
data about her activity every 15 minutes.
“This is really the only documented time [a white shark] has
eaten in captivity,” said Tyler Masamori, an employee of the
aquarium. “We’re definitely watching how fast she grows,” he said,
through regular measurements and weigh-ins.
An aquarium press release said there is documentation of a white
shark eating in captivity once before, at the Manley Marineland
Aquarium in Sydney, Australia in 1968. That one reportedly ate the
other fish on display in the multi-species exhibit.
But she’s continuing to eat the salmon and mackerel fillets
they’re feeding her from a pole, along with a vitamin supplement.
In fact, the other fish are delighted to have her-they’ve been
overfed their regular diet of squid and ‘vitamin goop’ to dissuade
them from eating her gourmet diet, though that may stop soon
Masamori said. While they don’t want the shark to have to fight for
her dinner, they are also concerned about the other fish getting
White sharks are a protected species in California waters, and
overall shark populations are in decline due to slow reproductive
rates, fishing, and delicacies like shark-fin soup, where the shark
is caught and the fins cut off, and then it is released back to the
ocean to die.
The aquarium has also been electronically tagging and monitoring
young white sharks in the ocean as part of its ongoing research.
Southern California is thought to be a nursery area for white
sharks, according to the aquarium.
In Monterey, they have had mixed results with sharks. In 1984, a
young male white shark was caught, but stopped eating and died 10
days later. Failed attempts at holding blue sharks resulted in the
aquarium deciding not to attempt with that species again. But they
have also been successfully exhibiting the Galapagos shark for the
first time outside of Hawaii beginning with their “Sharks: Myth and
Mystery” exhibit which opened in April. The Galapagos were later
transferred to the Outer Bay exhibit because their noses were
getting scratched navigating the smaller tank.
If the staff begins to notice a decline in the white shark’s
mood or health, they said she will be returned to the ocean near
where she was caught, if possible. They have prohibited flash
photography of the exhibit, and offer to e-mail a photo to visitors
instead, in an effort to not further stress the shark.
They may live as long as 20 years and full-grown, white sharks
can reach 15 feet in length, and weigh up to two tons, so staff
will also be watching to make sure she doesn’t outgrow the
But they hope she will continue to be happy on exhibit. “Given
the way sharks have been demonized in popular culture, a change in
public attitude is critical if we want to assure their survival,”
said Cynthia Vernon, the aquarium’s vice president of conservation,
in a press release.
A short drive from Mills, the Monterey Bay Aquarium is open from
10 a.m. to 6 p.m., and they will only be displaying the white shark
for as long as they feel comfortable.