Many of you may know that the Monterey Bay Aquarium has held several great white sharks in captivity – six since 2004. The longest on display was a female, who was viewed by aquarium visitors for 198 days before she was released into Monterey Bay.
Seeing a white shark in person is a dream come true for many shark lovers, and for those who are unable to cage dive with great whites, an aquarium would be the ideal place for interaction. For visitors who’d rather wait for hell to freeze over than come near a great white, seeing one in an aquarium would be the perfect opportunity to educate them and correct misconceptions about white sharks.
So why aren’t white sharks featured in aquariums more often?
Short answer: It’s really, really, really hard to take care of them.
Long answer: Think about the practical considerations of keeping an animal as large as a great white in captivity: An aquarium needs a tank big enough for the shark to swim in freely. A great white needs to eat a lot of food, and it’s a pickier eater than most people give it credit for. The white sharks on display at Monterey Bay were all juveniles, smaller and less hungry than adults.
Then, consider the effect of being held captivity has on a great white: For an animal used to swimming freely for hundreds of miles on end, being kept in close quarters is extremely stressful. Early attempts to keep great whites in aquariums ended when the sharks repeatedly bumped into the walls of their tank, or wouldn’t eat.
The sharks at Monterey Bay were all held in a holding pen smaller than the display tank, where they could recover from being captured and be monitored by the aquarium staff. Releasing the shark back into the wild after being on display brings even more stress, and has to be done carefully.
Even if an aquarium accounts for all these factors, there’s still a big issue: great white sharks are mysterious. Their behavior is complex, and we don’t understand enough about them to make the best decisions about their welfare in an aquarium. Although the aquarists at Monterey Bay have done an excellent job taking care of their white sharks, not every aquarium is as knowledgable or well-equipped to do so.
One day, we may understand enough about white sharks that we can keep juveniles in aquariums like any other fish, but that won’t happen unless we are able to conduct more research, and conserve the remaining white sharks in the wild.