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Posted on Sat, Oct. 02, 2004

Shark breaks tank record by making herself at home

Mercury News

The great white shark wowing crowds at the Monterey Bay Aquarium is now a record holder.

As of Friday morning, the young animal has been on display for 17 days, breaking SeaWorld's record from 1981, when the San Diego adventure park exhibited a great white for 16 days before releasing it.

In the clearest sign that the shark seems to be thriving in captivity, the shark has eaten salmon, mackerel and sardines 10 of the 17 days. She also appears increasingly relaxed as she circles the aquarium's million-gallon Outer Bay tank, another indication that she is adapting well to her new home. The aquarium hopes to be the first in the world to put a great white on long-term display.

``She is doing all the things that our folks have hoped for,'' said Ken Peterson, aquarium spokesman.

The animal, less than a year old, is the only great white shark on display in the world today. Of the roughly three dozen great whites kept at aquariums over the years, most were unintentionally caught in commercial fishing gear and brought directly to aquariums. They either died or were freed when they wouldn't eat.

Less than a day after being brought to the Cannery Row aquarium, the shark lunched on salmon -- the first time a great white has accepted food in an aquarium.

Commercial halibut fishermen accidentally caught the shark in their nets off the coast of Huntington Beach on Aug. 20. She had been kept in a specially designed 4-million-gallon pen off the Southern California coast until Sept. 14, when she was trucked to Monterey in an unmarked, 3,000-gallon shark tank on wheels.

Her captivity is controversial in some scientific circles. Groups such as Pelagic Shark Research Foundation in Santa Cruz oppose keeping animals such as killer whales and great whites in captivity.

``Not every animal in the ocean is suited to long-term captivity,'' said Sean Van Sommeran, the organization's executive director.

That said, Van Sommeran added that the Monterey Bay Aquarium is incredibly well suited to keeping the shark because of its large staff and the money it's willing to spend to monitor the health of animals. ``And for all the misgivings and complaints, this is a perfect specimen,'' he said.

But Van Sommeran said he fears that other less-equipped aquariums will follow Monterey's lead if it's successful.

Scientists at the aquarium think they might have hit on the correct approach -- keeping the shark in a ``halfway house'' to let her adapt to the shock of being caught before bringing her to the smaller confines of an aquarium. ``We designed this approach to give us the highest likelihood of success,'' said Randy Kochevar, a marine biologist.

The young shark has increased the aquarium's normal attendance more than 50 percent -- adding about 30,000 visitors in the second half of September.

One of the most common questions: Why doesn't the shark eat the other fish in the tank?

``It's easier to take food we offer than to hunt one another,'' Kochevar explained. ``I wouldn't say it never happens. Occasionally we find that someone decides to dine during the night.''

The aquarium believes the risk of captivity is worth it because the experience of seeing a great white will mobilize public support for conservation of the long-feared -- but misunderstood -- animal.

The thrill of seeing a young ``Jaws'' is apparent every time Kochevar takes someone to the tank.

``She definitely has a presence,'' he said.


The Monterey Bay Aquarium, 886 Cannery Row, Monterey, is open from 10 a.m. to 6 p.m. daily. A live Web cam of the Outer Bay exhibit streams video from 7 a.m. to 7 p.m. at www.montereybay aquarium.org

Contact Ken McLaughlin at kmclaughlin@mercurynews. com or (831) 423-3115.

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