Science & Tech

The tragic reason why there are no great white sharks in captivity

The tragic reason why there are no great white sharks in captivity
Great White Sharks Attack Humans Because Of Bad Eyesight
unbranded - Lifestyle / VideoElephant

Sea life centres are home to all manner of rare and dangerous beasts, from jellyfish to orcas and yet, there are some animals you’ll never see in an aquarium.

The great white shark may be one of the most obsessed over predators in the world, but very few of us will ever see the legendary fish in real life.

This is not because of their size – they are, in fact, smaller than other creatures, including the whale shark (the largest fish in the world) – nor their blood lust, but for another, more tragic reason…

When great white sharks have been held in captivity in the past, they’ve almost always succumbed to a swift end.

The first time one of these behemoths was put on display was in the former LA tourist attraction, Marineland of the Pacific, back in 1955. The poor animal didn’t last a day.

Since then, a series of attempts have been made to house the sharks in oceanariums, but none have worked: either the great whites have been released back into the wild or, if they’ve stayed in captivity, they’ve died within days.

California’s Monterey Bay Aquarium holds the record for publicly displaying a great white shark, as the only public aquarium in the world to have successfully done so for longer than 16 days.

It exhibited six great white sharks in its Open Sea exhibit between 2004 and 2011, caring for one for a total of 198 days.

California's Monterey Bay Aquarium was once home to six great white sharks(Monterey Bay Aquarium)

However, maintaining suitable conditions was no mean feat: it relied on a 10.6-metre (almost 35 feet) deep tank which had been specially designed for open ocean animals and held 15 million litres (four million gallons) of water, local news outlet The Mercury News reported at the time.

Nevertheless, Monterey Bay closed its great white shark exhibition in 2011, both because of the costs and resources involved in maintaining the operation and because the predators had grown increasingly aggressive in captivity.

Some of the white sharks incurred injuries during their time in the tank and killed other animals in the exhibit, Vox reports.

And the final shark died for unconfirmed reasons immediately following its release

So why is it so hard to keep these incredible fish alive away from their natural habitat?

First of all, it is impossible to keep an adult great white shark in a tank. These reach an average of 15 feet in length, which makes the very act of moving them an almost insurmountable challenge.

The six great whites displayed by Monterey Bay were all babies, the first of which was 4ft4in long and less than a year old when they caught it, making it simpler to move and care for,

Furthermore, when they're young, they feed on fish, but as they get older they transition to feeding more on mammals, meaning older great whites are much harder to cater for.

But perhaps most significantly sharks, like all fish, need to have water continually passing through their gills in order to get oxygen, as Vox notes.

And whilst most species can open and close their mouths to pump water through, great whites don’t do this. To breathe, they need to move forward through the water with their mouths open.

That's why they start to weaken as soon as their movement is restricted.

The fearsome predators are used to travelling long distances, moving as they please(iStock)

In addition, great whites and other pelagic sharks (meaning ones that live far from land) are accustomed to swimming long distances without obstructions, changing directions whenever they see fit.

This means that walls cause them a huge amount of confusion and distress when they’re put in a tank.

This issue particularly blighted Monterey Bay' sixth white shark in 2011 – which was seen constantly bashing its head against the glass sides.

The aquarium therefore decided to release it after 55 days, but its tracking tag revealed that it died shortly after returning to the wild.

Monterey Bay hasn’t housed another great white shark since.

Sign up for our free Indy100 weekly newsletter

How to join the indy100's free WhatsApp channel

Have your say in our news democracy. Click the upvote icon at the top of the page to help raise this article through the indy100 rankings

The Conversation (0)
x