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Thursday, September 25, 2014

Zoo History: The Great White Sharks of Monterey Bay

There's an old joke about two kids going off to school, talking about their classes for that day.  One of them sagely points out that she thinks that history should be the first class taught every day, before any more of it happens.  It's a joke, of course, but one with an important lesson - history is always being made.

Zoos and aquariums are always making history, albeit history that is seldom noticed by the rest of the world. A big part of that is the achieving of historical "fists" - such as being the first institution to breed a particular species in captivity and rear it successfully, or the first to obtain knowledge about an animal's behavior or biology.  Some of the most celebrated "firsts", however, are being the first (and only) institution to display a species... or the first to keep it alive for any length of time.

It was the later achievement that the Monterey Bay Aquarium could boast of with its great white sharks.

The great white shark is perhaps the most iconic of ocean creatures.  It's certainly the most feared.  That being said, it is one that you won't see in any public aquariums.  You'll see sand tiger sharks and nurse sharks, leopard sharks and zebra sharks, even a whale shark in a tiny handful of aquariums around the globe... but not the great white.  Not, unless, you went to Monterey Bay Aquarium in the early years of the 21st century.

Monterey Bay Aquarium literally has great whites in its back yard.  The massive sharks are attracted to the area, as they are to other shorelines of the world which boast healthy breeding populations of fatty, nutritious seals and sea lions.  With such an extraordinary, celebrated, yet little-known predator so close to their facility, it's hardly surprising that aquarium biologists showed interest in the great white, and considerable sums of money were poured into researching it.   Compared to the other apex predators of the world - lions, polar bears, saltwater crocodiles - amazingly little is known about the great white shark.  Monterey's staff took steps to rectify the situation by capturing, tagging, and releasing sharks in the nearby waters.  Over 100 sharks were tagged, allowing scientists to start collecting basic information - where do they go?  How do the grow? How do they breed (this being studied through DNA analysis)?

The aquarium also wanted to try doing what had never been done successfully before - exhibit a great white shark.  It had been tried in the past at SeaWorld, as well as Monterey itself, with a young shark captured in 1984 dying about two weeks later after it refused to feed.  Keeping great whites in captivity is a Catch-22.  They don't do well in aquariums because we know so little about their needs in captivity.  We now so little about their needs because they don't live long enough to study.  Still, with the knowledge gained at Monterey, the decision was made to try, and a young, small shark (the target animals from the study) was captured and - with the greatest of care - transfered to the aquarium.

Between 2004 and 2011, six sharks were displayed at the aquarium, the longest for about six months.  Each shark was eventually released back into the waters where it was captured.  The sharks not only attracted considerable attention to the aquarium - nearly one million visitors came to see it in 2004 - but it also provided a great ambassador for the aquarium's efforts to study and save the species.  Julie Packard, the aquarium's executive director, called the shark "the most powerful emissary for ocean conservation in history", and I'm not saying she's wrong.

Last year, the aquarium announced that it was "taking a break" from exhibiting great white sharks.  The shark is up for additional government protection, which is certainly a good thing, but would make the matter of removing one from the ocean a bureaucratic nightmare.  It's possible that the keeping of the species may never be attempted again.  That's not the end of the world, though.  What's important is that thousands of people were given a rare chance to see the ocean's most infamous predator as they never would before, and the Monterey Bay Aquarium continues to use its voice and its resources to push for the conservation of great whites and other marine species.

Besides, there are lots of other incredible shark species which are on display in aquariums around the world.  

Visitors watch a male great white shark at the Monterey Bay Aquarium in 2006. (VERN FISHER/The Herald)

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