April 1, 2005
How do you release a great white shark back into the wild after its been in captivity for 198 days? Yes. Yes. Very carefully. Actually, you wait until just before dawn, when the shark usually approaches the surface of the aquarium tank, net it quickly and then transport it in a tanker to the release point, and very, very carefully lower it into the bay on a sling. Then you watch the dorsal fin slowly glide away, remembering why you dont surf. The shark in this case was an unnamed great white, about a year old, that was for a brief few months the crown jewel exhibit at the Monterey Bay Aquarium, the first great white successfully kept in captivity for more than 16 days. She had been caught by accident by commercial fishers off Orange County, California, but released in the southern end of Monterey Bay because she seemed healthy enough to survive there, and driving the freeways with a great white shark in your tank, well. Every other great white refused to eat when captured and had to be released lest it starve to death. This shark, apparently not prepared to stand on principle, ate with relish. Actually, it started eating its tank-mates in the million-gallon Oceans Edge exhibit at the Cannery Row facility. Reasonably docile for much of the time--for a great white--she began showing aggressive behaviors and started munching on soupfin sharks in the tank. When aquarium staff saw her chasing a hammerhead and some Galapagos sharks, they thought it was time to reconsider. The great white had grown from five-feet and 62 pounds to six-feet-four-inches and 162 pounds, and it was clear to the aquarium staff that if she got any bigger they would not be able to safely handle her. The captivity, besides being a record, was a winner all around. The shark got to spend more than six months not having to hunt for a living; the aquarium--crowded even on quiet days--saw attendance jump to a million during the time she was around, and marine biologists got to plant a transmitter on the critter as part of their study of the migratory behavior of these threatened beasts.
And how is the little darling do? Splendidly, apparently. It was last recorded off the coast of Santa Barbara. The electronic tag placed on the shark by aquarium officials, broke off and popped to the surface as it was programmed to do, 25 miles west of Point Conception. That's far enough away from Monterey Bay to tell scientists she is doing well. The tag is still floating in the water, sending readings on what temperatures and depths she liked, which would give them the best data ever on what great whites do in the wild when they are not noshing on surfers.
[By the way, one of the stories on the shark was written for the local Santa Cruz Sentinel by a reporter named Brian Seals. No wonder he got the assignment. ]