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June 17, 2004

Great White Cage

Monterey Bay Aquarium will attempt to keep a great white in captivity

By Bruce Willey

The calm water rippled slightly as a yellowfin tuna sheared through the surface and a green sea turtle came up for air, plowing the water in a lazy breaststroke. Nearly 35 feet down, a soup fin shark circled slowly among the fast-moving tuna, and at the very bottom, an incongruous sight-fully clothed, completely dry tourists, hundreds of them, jaws open and staring through the 13-inch Plexiglas of the million-gallon tank at the Monterey Bay Aquarium.

Called the Outer Bay exhibit for its collection of pelagic, or open-ocean, animals, the aquarium is home to one of the largest live-animal displays in the world. But soon, if all goes according to the aquarium´s plan, these pelagic animals may have to share this tank with one of the most understandably feared, yet most maligned and demonized predators in the ocean: the great white shark.

This summer the aquarium scientists will, for the third time, embark on what many aquarists consider to be the Holy Grail of oceanic husbandry: displaying a Carcharodon carcharias, the biting, toothy stuff of Hollywood legend and surfers´ fears. It´s an ambitious and expensive project.

For the past two years, the aquarium has been trying to capture a juvenile white shark off the coast of Southern California, then coax it to feed in captivity with the ultimate goal of transporting the shark-an eight-hour journey up the coast in a specially designed tank with a life support system-and displaying it at the aquarium. Beginning this week, aquarium scientists will again attempt to capture a great white.

The aquarium´s efforts are starting to pay off. Last summer, off the coast of Ventura County in Southern California, where the research and possible capture is taking place, aquarium scientists were able to keep a juvenile white shark in a five-million-gallon, open-ocean tuna pen for five days. On the third day, the 77-pound, year-old female began to eat fish fillets, fish being the primary food source of juveniles until they graduate to blubber-rich seals, sea lions and elephant seals. The scientists eventually turned the shark loose.

"She did extraordinarily well within the confines of the net and began feeding, which is a very good sign," says Dr. Randy Kochever, 38, science communication manager at the aquarium. "If an animal is stressed or not doing well, it won´t eat."

So far, aquariums haven´t had much luck with captive white sharks. Since 1955, nearly 30 whites have been placed in captivity. All of them died or were released. In 1981 Sea World of San Diego managed to keep an individual for 16 days, a record. And no one really seems to know why. Big questions like how long great whites live, where and how often they breed, and how many exist remain to be answered, let alone how to keep one alive in a big tank.

Unlocking these mysteries isn´t easy. The majority of research on great whites has been done at the surface of the ocean from the relative safety of a boat or cage when the sharks are in predatory feeding mode. White sharks are elusive, roaming the temperate and tropical oceans, diving to great depths and migrating long distances. Unlike their hard-to-shake stereotype of cold-blooded killing machines, great whites are warm-blooded, intelligent animals whose only crime is the occasional mistaken identity bite on an unlucky human.

"They are scary at times, and it´s an awesome animal," says 57-year-old, world-renowned shark researcher Dr. Peter Klimley, a biologist who´s studied sharks for more than 30 years and is in favor of putting a great white in captivity "But it´s not a mindless animal, it has very complex behaviors, and by seeing it in an aquarium we could better see the shark for what it is, not some blood-and-guts type thing seen on many of the television nature shows."

The aquarium hopes to unravel some of these unknowns, in particular if the juveniles are the result of a great white pupping ground in the warmer waters off Southern California. Scientists also attach a satellite tag, a device the size and shape of a microphone with about the same computing power as a Palm Pilot. The tag measures water temperature, pressure and light levels, which can be used to estimate position-information that is eventually beamed up to a satellite when the tag pops off after a few months. Additionally, blood and tissue samples are collected for DNA analysis to determine how closely related the juveniles are, which might shed light on the size of the breeding population.

The aquarium, though, is taking a cautious, conservative approach when it comes to putting a white shark on display. "We want to assure ourselves at every step in the process that we really understand how the animal is doing," Kochevar says. "If at any point we find the animal is not doing well, we will be in a position to immediately return the shark to the wild."

But there are some who think a great white should not be captured for display and should remain in the wild. Sean Van Sommeran, 41, director of the Santa Cruz-based Pelagic Shark Research Foundation, is an outspoken critic of captive great whites and believes the aquarium´s motivation adds up to nothing more than ticket sales and a possible mascot for the aquarium.

"Granting they´re successful, the shark will get big (white sharks can grow to 19-feet plus and weigh up to 5,000 pounds), then what are they going to do?" Van Sommeran asks. "Best-case scenario would involve release of the animal, at which point they´ll be releasing a hand-fed, imprinted animal that will be looking to humans for food. That will scare the hell out of any Boogie boarder, surfer, boater that may not be expecting or appreciating that kind of contact. The aquarium is whoring out the animal, and the tank is a bordello. It´s like, ‘come and watch the prisoners play handball as they slowly asphyxiate.´"

Mark Berman, 50, associate director of the International Marine Mammal Project of the Earth Island Institute, an environmental group founded by former Sierra Club president David Brower, agrees. "Keeping animals in captivity is nothing but a circus act," he says. "If people want to see a great white shark they should see it in a habitat where it belongs-the ocean."

Still, there´s little doubt the aquarium will generate a lot of attention-and a lot of ticket sales-if they are successful. Of all the animals an aquarium could keep, a great white is one of the highest in terms of public interest. This in turn could inspire more aquariums to display great whites.

"That´s a problem," Berman says. "The amount of money the aquarium is spending on this project could be put to better use, such as shark conservation. Sharks need our protection, not to be kidnapped to satisfy tourists."

Kochevar has this to say in defense of putting a great white in the aquarium: "At some level we may just have to agree to disagree. By putting an animal on display we can foster public interest, foster public concern and inspire people to become responsible stewards of the ocean by showing them the real thing. We honestly believe that this is the very best thing we can do to ensure the long-term health of these magnificent animals."

Whatever happens, one thing is certain: The great white shark is the last great predator on earth that has thus far dodged any lengthy captivity. Killer whales jump through hoops, polar bears swat beach balls, and wolves and tigers pace the walls. But the great white may, in the end, outsmart all efforts to contain its mystery. That in itself is reason to go cautiously and respectfully into the waters the great shark calls home.

Originally published here:

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