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Aquarium Has a Killer Attraction

Monterey Bay's great white has victimized two other sharks, but draws crowds -- and criticism.

March 14, 2005|Irwin Speizer | Special to The Times

MONTEREY, Calif. — The great white shark that has enthralled throngs of curious spectators at the Monterey Bay Aquarium since its arrival six months ago has proved lethal for some of its tank mates. Over 13 days, the infant great white sank its razor-sharp teeth into two soupfin sharks, killing both.

The recent incidents have prompted calls and letters questioning whether a predator like a great white is suitable for a captive aquarium environment.

The great white, the only one on exhibit in the world, is the first to survive in captivity for more than a few days, and the aquarium is determined to try to keep it for a while longer, possibly into the busy summer tourist season.

Thanks to the shark's residency, aquarium attendance is up by 30%. Aquarium officials say the high attendance validates the decision to display the shark. Part of the aquarium's mission is to educate the public on fragile ocean species like the great white shark.

"Are we keeping it here to generate more visitation? Absolutely," said Randy Kochevar, a staff marine biologist who serves as science spokesman for the aquarium. "The more visitors, the more we get the word out. Bringing people face to face with real animals is the best way to inspire people in conservation."

Kochevar also said scientists are able to study things about the great white, such as eating habits and growth trends, that might not be possible in the wild.

But Sean Van Sommerman, executive director of the Pelagic Shark Research Foundation in Santa Cruz, questioned the importance of the research, saying the captive shark would not necessarily behave or develop as one in the wild.

He also took exception to the idea that exhibiting the shark broadens public awareness. Displaying the shark simply promotes awareness of the aquarium and helps fill its coffers, Van Sommerman said.

Visitors did not witness either shark attack, both of which occurred during hours when the aquarium was closed to the public. The first happened overnight on Feb. 23. The second took place around 7:30 a.m. March 7. By the time aquarium officials noticed the second injured soupfin shark, visitors had arrived and saw it as well. Aquarium officials sutured the injured shark's wound, but it did not survive.

One soupfin was 4 feet long and weighed 85 pounds, the other 5 1/2 feet long and 125 pounds.

Both incidents were captured on cameras that monitor the million-gallon Outer Bay tank, which the great white shares with other sea life, including tuna, barracuda and sea turtles.

Aquarium officials say that in both cases, the great white appeared to have been spooked by soupfin sharks that swam too close. Both times, the white shark bit near the tail of the nearby soupfin.

The great white is known to feed on other sharks but was not apparently trying to eat the soupfins, Kochevar said. The aquarium has tried to prevent the shark from noshing on its neighbors by feeding it several times a day in hopes of keeping it sated.

The female great white was about 4 to 6 months old when it was trapped in a commercial fisherman's net off the coast of Huntington Beach last August and then taken to the aquarium. It arrived at 4 feet, 6 inches long and weighing 62 pounds.

Over the last six months it has grown about a foot and gained about 40 pounds, but it is still not the largest fish in the tank. Some tuna in the tank weigh more than 300 pounds. Full-grown great whites run 12 to 15 feet long, with some known to exceed 20 feet.

The aquarium's goal is to keep the shark as long as it can, then return it to the wild.

"We would transport her to waters somewhere south of Point Conception, as this is where the young great white sharks appear to be found," said Ken Peterson, an aquarium spokesman.

Van Sommerman, of the Pelagic Shark Research Foundation, said he worries that the great white has already suffered nose injuries from bumping into the walls of the tank. And he said that the longer the shark remains in captivity, the more trouble it will have adapting to life in the wild.

The foundation opposes keeping certain species -- such as leatherback sea turtles and great white sharks -- in captivity. "It seems to compromise the animal in question," Van Sommerman said.

Kochevar said the great white is closely monitored and appears to be doing fine, and as a result, there are no immediate plans to release her. But the larger she gets, the more difficult she will be to move.

So far the aquarium has decided the shark is neither too aggressive nor too large to keep, and that the benefits of her display outweigh the concerns.

"There are people who feel what we are doing is wrong," Kochevar said. "We will agree to disagree and respect that opinion."

As for the two remaining soupfin sharks, they have "been moved to our Monterey Bay habitats exhibit, and we'll continue to monitor them to see if they will stay on display there or if they'll need to be released," Peterson said.


Times staff writer Marla Cone contributed to this report.

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