Not On Exhibit
Great White Shark FAQs
It's a multi year study of great white sharks
in the eastern Pacific Ocean that we began in 2002. The goals of the project include exhibit research and development, juvenile white shark research, adult white shark research and the study of white shark genetics. By tagging and exhibiting white sharks, we can contribute significantly to public understanding and protection of these maligned animals—an ecologically important and increasingly threatened species. By collaborating with several research partners, we've had success in these efforts.
Most past attempts by aquariums involved capturing a white shark and putting it directly on exhibit. Starting in 2002, we took a more cautious and methodical approach developed through collaboration with shark experts and aquarium colleagues from around the world. Our demonstrated success involved working with a white shark in an ocean pen before gradually proceeding, step-by-step, toward putting it on exhibit. If at any point in the process the shark had not done well, we would have tagged and released it back to the wild.
Our four-million-gallon ocean pen gives the shark a chance to recover from the stress of capture. Also, by working with the shark in the ocean pen, we can learn how well it maneuvers in an enclosed space—an important step in evaluating whether it would do well on exhibit at the Aquarium.
Our mission is to inspire conservation of the oceans. We know that bringing people face-to-face with living marine animals is a powerful way to move them to care about the oceans and ocean life. White sharks are among the most maligned animals on Earth and one of many shark species worldwide threatened by human activities. In fact, white sharks are protected under the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species (CITES). We believe there's no better way for us to raise awareness about the threats white sharks face than to let people see for themselves what magnificent and fascinating animals they are, tell the story of the threats they face in the wild and offer ways to take action that will protect them. Over two million people have seen the six white sharks we've exhibited.
White sharks are placed in our million-gallon Open Sea exhibit, where they join many other open-ocean species, including bluefin and yellowfin tunas, bonito, barracuda, sea turtles and other sharks. This exhibit was designed to simulate the open-ocean environment and engineered with sharks in mind.
Sometimes our husbandry staff attempts to collect young white sharks directly by hook-and-line or by purse-seining one or more sharks spotted from aircraft. We also rely on commercial fishing crews in southern California, who occasionally catch juvenile white sharks accidentally while fishing for other species. We have worked directly with a commercial fishing vessel to target young sharks, asking crews to contact us if they capture a young white shark that's alive and healthy. We have a rapid response team standing by to work with any sharks that are caught by commercial fishermen. Team members assess the sharks' health and either transfer them to the ocean holding pen or tag them and return them to the wild. There are many unknowns with sharks that are bycatch from a commercial fishery, including how long they've been in the net and to what degree their health has been compromised as a result. We have much more confidence that we're starting with a healthy animal when our team does the collecting.
An animal's feeding behavior is one of the best indicators of how it's feeling. If an animal is ill or stressed, it will typically stop eating. We watch carefully to see how often and how much a white shark eats, and can respond if there are any signs of problems. We also look for relaxed swimming patterns and calm tail beats. And we monitor its overall physical appearance.
We've found that the young white sharks on exhibit feed enthusiastically on wild-caught salmon, mackerel, black cod, albacore and sardines, supplemented with specially formulated vitamins. Juvenile white sharks are fish eaters, only switching to marine mammals when they grow larger and have increased needs for an energy-rich diet from the mammals' blubber
Although these incidents are not unprecedented in the Aquarium, they are rare, and we try to keep them to a minimum—primarily by ensuring that the animals in our care are all well fed. While two white sharks we kept on exhibit bit two other sharks, others have showed no interest in their exhibit-mates.
We've successfully released sharks back to the wild when they outgrew their surroundings. When we've been able to tag and track these animals, we've found that they continue to thrive in the wild, despite their time on exhibit. Data from the archival tag retrieved from the white shark released to the wild in March 2005 showed that she survived and thrived after release. Also, after spending four years at the Aquarium, a sevengill shark
swam several hundred miles back to its home waters and survived another two years before she was caught by a sportfisherman.
If we find that a shark is not eating, but otherwise appears to be in good health, we'll return it to the wild. While the fourth shark was swimming well in the million-gallon Open Sea exhibit, it fed only one time during her stay, and the Aquarium's animal care staff decided it was best to return her to the ocean after 11 days. If a shark appears to be sick or injured and unlikely to survive a return to the wild, we will euthanize it humanely and perform a necropsy so we can learn as much as possible. Sharks are released offshore of the Monterey peninsula.
Working with Stanford University scientists, through our collaboration in the Tuna Research and Conservation Center (TRCC)
, and with other research partners, we hope to learn more about the lives of white sharks in the wild. We want to learn where they go, what they do and how they fit into the ocean ecosystem.
The juvenile white sharks we've tagged tended to remain in the coastal zone, although some traveled more extensively than others over the months we've tracked them. They traveled from southern California to halfway down the Baja peninsula in Mexico. While they spent most of their time in shallow waters, they also showed an ability to make 1,000-foot dives. Adult white sharks tagged off the coast of northern California have made long journeys into the eastern Pacific to a spot nicknamed the "Shark Café," and have ranged as far west as Hawaii. In future years, we'd like to learn whether their behavior changes from season to season, and what they're doing during their migrations.
White sharks face many threats from human activity, especially commercial fishing and trophy hunting. Whatever we learn about their movement patterns can play a role in developing management strategies to protect them. By knowing what habitats white sharks use and the distances they roam, resource managers will have a better understanding of the risks white sharks face and will be able to conserve these rare animals more effectively.
We use a "pop-up satellite archival tag." Attached externally to a shark, it collects data—on temperature, depth and light (used to estimate position)—which it stores in a tiny computer. On a preprogrammed date, the tag pops off the shark and floats to the surface. When reaching the surface, the tag transmits the data to an earth-orbiting satellite, which sends the data to the laboratory. Some tags wash ashore, and their data are recovered when the tags are found and returned by beachcombers. We also use Smart Position or Temperature Transmitting (SPOT) tags that can provide near-real-time information about where the sharks go.
Yes, they're considered a threatened species. Their numbers are unknown but thought to be low. They're protected in many places where they live, including California, Australia and South Africa. They're slow-growing and late to reach sexual maturity, and they produce relatively few offspring. This makes them highly vulnerable to exploitation. They can be killed accidentally in fishing gear and are often targeted by trophy hunters. Because of trophy hunting, they're now protected under the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species (CITES).
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