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Researchers Capture a Baby Great White Off Ventura

A Monterey aquarium team is studying the shark as part of a project to see if the species can be put on exhibit.

August 02, 2003|Jenifer Ragland | Times Staff Writer

Monterey Bay Aquarium researchers have captured a young great white shark off the Ventura County coast and are holding it in a giant undersea pen for further study, the latest step in a multiyear effort to determine whether the ocean's top predator can be put on public exhibit.

The female shark, about 1 year old, became tangled in a commercial gill net just outside Ventura Harbor on Tuesday morning and was placed in a 5-million gallon mesh pen north of Malibu four hours later, said John O'Sullivan, head of the aquarium's $1.2-million, three-year great white shark research project.

"She was very responsive and appeared to be in very good shape," O'Sullivan said.

A key question now is whether the baby shark -- about 5 feet long and 77 pounds -- will feed in captivity. All past efforts to display a great white in a public aquarium have failed, largely because the animals wouldn't eat.

On Tuesday and Thursday, researchers hung a line laced with mackerel filets in the center of the pen, but the shark hasn't taken any bites, Ken Peterson, aquarium spokesman, said Friday. Water visibility is poor, he said, which may be a factor.

Although the shark is swimming well in the pen, if efforts to feed her are not successful within the next week, the research team will release her back into the wild, Peterson said.

The animal already has been tagged with an electronic monitor, which will pop off in 60 days and send recorded data via satellite back to scientists. That tag will provide information about the shark's habits, including its movements, diving depths and the water temperature it prefers.

"The fact that we've been able to place this animal in the pen for two days is a big accomplishment," said Randy Kochevar, science communications manager for the aquarium. "If we were to decide, yes, we will release her tomorrow, this would be a successful first step."

In addition to feeding, several hurdles must be overcome before the team can consider taking any great white shark back to the aquarium's million-gallon Outer Bay exhibit, where it would be housed with giant bluefin tuna and other open-ocean species.

Researchers want to try shrinking the undersea pen to see how the animal does in a smaller enclosed environment. They will also attempt a simulated drive to Monterey to make sure the animal could survive the six-hour trip.

The aquarium's project is funded through next year, and possibly could be extended until 2005, so researchers do not want to rush things, Peterson said.

"People have tried that approach, and we know what the outcome has been," he said.

Between now and Tuesday, when the team must begin dismantling the undersea pen, O'Sullivan will continue trolling local waters for young great white sharks -- a protected species in California.

The team has been fishing from a chartered boat since July 10. The effort has included keeping in close contact with local commercial and sport fishermen who might accidentally nab a shark.

That is what happened last week, when a local halibut fisherman found the baby great white caught in his net and called O'Sullivan to collect it, Peterson said.

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