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In shark tank, a great white survives

A white shark in captivity could offer new insights on the mysterious and feared creature.

By Staff writer of The Christian Science Monitor / September 23, 2004



MONTEREY, CALIF

. - For a moment, Jill Udoutch stands face to face with a childhood nightmare. Raised on "Jaws," she was scared to go into the water. So when the pale snout of a great white shark emerges in the deep blue veil of seawater just a few feet away from her, she feels an almost unexplainable surge.

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But with an acrylic window 13 inches thick separating Ms. Udoutch from the most feared carnivore on the planet, the thrill is not of terror but of awe. "It kind of takes the scare out of it," she says. "You see the elegance."

What she is watching here at the Monterey Bay Aquarium may prove nothing less than historic. Thirty-seven times during the past half century, an aquarium has attempted to hold a white shark in captivity. Each time it has failed. The sharks are so finely tuned to their predatory life in the open sea - and at the same time so fascinating to the general public - that they have become the Holy Grail of aquariums worldwide.

The Monterey Bay Aquarium now appears to be the closest ever to reaching it. If it is successful, it will help biologists lift the shroud of mystery surrounding a creature that evokes far more fear than understanding. Moreover, the reactions of those visitors here who press their noses to the glass suggest that even the animal kingdom's greatest villain can gain a measure of sympathy.

"The only way to change public perceptions [about the shark] is to exhibit it to the public," says Christina Slager of the aquarium. "It is an ambassador for the well-being of the entire species."

At first glance, it seems a modest ambassador. The shark, a female that biologists here have chosen not to name, glides by the panoramic window of the Outer Bay exhibit with all the appearance of a petite "Jaws," but little of the menace. At 4 feet, 4 inches long, she is actually smaller than some of her tankmates - including a flotilla of massive and considerably more ornery tuna.

But that is by design. No aquarium in the world could even consider housing a fully grown, 15-foot white shark. Biologists here asked a number of California fishermen to alert them if a small great white became tangled in their nets. Last month, a crew of halibut fishers near Huntington Beach called them with what they were looking for - a shark probably less than a year old.

What has followed has been a lesson in the complexity of handling animals so well adapted to their open sea environment that they haven't substantially changed since the time of the dinosaurs. As scientists had learned, white sharks could not simply be plopped into an aquarium and expected to adapt.

The history of white shark captures is sketchy, compiled more in memories and anecdotes than databases and statistics. But of the previous 37 attempts, it appears that only one succeeded in getting its white shark to eat. And even in that instance, the shark soon showed the telltale signs that things were amiss, such as swimming awkwardly or bumping into walls. No white shark has survived in captivity for more than 16 days.

As of Tuesday, Monterey Bay's white shark had been in the Outer Bay exhibit for seven days, and the staff reports a robust appetite for salmon fillets and no signs of ill health.

The success is a result of careful planning. After she was captured, the shark was kept in a holding pen off the coast of Malibu for 3-1/2 weeks, allowing her to gradually become accustomed to a confined space. When scientists deemed her ready to move to Monterey, she was trucked north.

In all, the Monterey Bay Aquarium has earmarked $1.2 million for the three-year project. "They deserve it," says John McCosker, director of San Francisco's Steinhart Aquarium, which has also attempted to display a great white. "They've tried harder than anyone else."

Like the biologists from Monterey Bay, he acknowledges that the quest to exhibit a white shark is a paradoxical one - threatening the lives of individual sharks in the hopes of being able to better understand and protect the species. But because of its reputation, the white shark needs more protecting than most - and the gaps in scientists' understanding are immense.

Scientists do not know how many white sharks exist or how they live. When a tracking device showed that one swam from California to Hawaii, scientists were astounded. Having one in captivity will allow biologists to watch what attracts it, how much it eats, how fast it grows, and other basic information.

Yet it is the reactions of astonished visitors that offer scientists the greatest hope: wider compassion. As he left, Peter Figgie took a flier that included the names of seafood companies that did not kill sharks. "Yes I am scared of sharks," he smiles. "But it's amazing to see something so elusive up close. I don't have to be as fearful."

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