Science: Great White Sharks

Juliet Eilperin
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, October 23, 2006; 1:00 PM

Washington Post science writer Juliet Eilperin was online to discuss her Monday Science Page story about the efforts to hold a great white shark in captivity at 1 p.m. ET on Monday, Oct. 23 .

For half a century, aquariums around the world have tried unsuccessfully to maintain a captive great white, the shark immortalized in the 1975 movie "Jaws" and its sequels, for more than a couple of weeks. Two years ago, scientists at the Monterey Bay Aquarium managed to pull off this feat for the first time, keeping a female great white in their million-gallon tank for six months. Since September they have been at it again, introducing a year-old male to thousands of tourists who have flocked to view it.

Read more: Rare Look at a Great White Shows Shark's Fragility ( Post, Oct. 23 ).

The transcript follows.


Nava, N.M.: Given the high risk of death in captivity, do the possible scientific benefits of studying great whites in closed quarters really outweigh the potential dangers? That is, like forcing a child to repeat phrases merely for one's amusement, isn't it unethical to study the great white in captivity?

Juliet Eilperin: One of the reasons the Monterey Aquarium is housing a baby shark is exactly because larger sharks can pose a threat to both to other marine creatures and to humans. In fact, they let the last great white shark free after she killed two soupfin sharks. The current shark is about a year old and while they'll keep him in captivity for a while, they will release him as soon as he starts exhibiting combative behavior, in the same way a 17-month old might start pummeling those close to her in an effort to express her frustration.


Falls Church, Va.: Is the male great white being held in the tuna tank like the female great white was held in a few years back? Are other countries sending representatives to Monterey Bay to learn how they too could keep a great white in captivity?

Juliet Eilperin: The male great white was held in the "Tunabego" as it was transported from its holding pen to the aquarium. Now it resides in a 4-million gallon tank. And other scientists have approached biologists at Monterey Bay in order to explore the possibility of housing a captive tank, but no one at the moment is attempting to repeat this feat.


Rockville, Md.: First it's Great White Sharks being kept in captivity, next thing you you'll be trying to keep Stingrays in man made aquariums! When are we going to wake up and realize that taking these bloodthirsty beasts out of the wild and into man's domain is a bad idea? Is it not bad enough that they're feasting on our flesh out in the wild? Do we really need to endanger our field-tripping schoolchildren with these monsters?

Juliet Eilperin: I understand your concern, and again, some people have concerns about keeping wild animals captive. The folks at Monterey Bay Aquarium have made the decision that it's worth taking a calculated risk in an effort to educate the public. They like to point out that now that 1.25 million people have seen a captive great white at their institution, more people have seen a great white up close than at any time in human history.


Easton, Md.: Are there any estimates on what the global White Shark population may be? Joel - Shark Research Institute

Juliet Eilperin: This is a subject of great debate. Some scientists believe that as few as 5,000 great white sharks exist now, but it's hard to know since we have such a difficult time tracking them in a methodical manner.


Monterey, Calif.: Have you ever gone cage-diving with great white sharks?

Juliet Eilperin: I've never gone cave diving with great white sharks, though I wouldn't rule it out. I have gone diving and snorkeling with sharks a couple of times, the species included lemon sharks, reef sharks and blacknosed sharks.


Camp Springs, Md.: What is it so hard to keep the White Sharks in captivity. Atlanta's aquarium has four Whale Sharks that seem to be thriving, and they are an open water species.

Juliet Eilperin: Some sharks are easier to keep captive than others. I'm not an expert in whale sharks, but a number of factors, including how aggressive the sharks are and how large they are, can determine whether they can thrive in an aquarium. One of the biggest challenges is getting a shark to eat--the current great white in Monterey did not eat for his first seven days in captivity, which made the aquarium's biologists very nervous.


Alexandria, Va.: What does it eat? How do they keep it wild enough that it can survive once freed?

Juliet Eilperin: The shark eats a number of different types of fish, including wild-caught salmon, mackerel, sardines and albacore tuna. They also supplement the shark's diet with vitamins, and they may experiment as time goes on. You raise an interesting question about whether it will survive in the wild-again, they determined that the other shark they held captive did survive in the wild after they released it in 2005.


Washington, D.C.: In your opinion, and I'm not kidding, if you dumped a few large crocs in there, who would win?

Juliet Eilperin: I've gotten this contest question and one from a Teaneck, NJ native asking who would win in a battle with a great white, the shark or Melville's fabled white-fanged tiger. In both cases I would bet on the shark, especially since the tiger might have trouble adjusting to the marine environment. However, I think it's worth noting that crocodiles and great whites do not share the same habitat, so you would need human intervention to ensure this fight took place.


20005: What would you say is the most important discovery about great whites based on what has been learned from the Monterrey sharks?

Juliet Eilperin: The most important thing scientists have discovered about great whites in the past few years is that they can travel long distances, with California sharks traveling to Hawaii and South African great whites traveling to as far as Australia. Before researchers attached satellite tags to sharks, we had no idea they migrated thousands of miles in a single year.


Vienna, Va.: How do I get to see the live feed of the sharks on the Monterey Bay Aquarium web site. I also want to know if anyone has a web site address of a web site to a video feed of sharks related to this article. I am doing this article as part of my geosystems presentation and I need a visual video. Thanks for your help in advance.

Juliet Eilperin: You can see a video feed of the shark feeding at, and you can probably find the footage you need there are well. In terms of feeding times, they feed the shark at 10:30 am. and 3:30 Pacific Standard Time, but on Tuesday, Thursday, Saturday and Sunday they shift the feeding to 11:30 a.m.


Sacramento, Calif.: Was the aquarium able to track the previous shark after she was released back to the wild? do they know if she survived and do they have concerns about this young shark's ability to survive in the wild after living in captivity? Thanks, Elizabeth

Juliet Eilperin: They were only able to track the first captive great white for the first 30 days after her release, since that was the data captured by the satellite pop-off tag. After that there's no way of knowing what has happened to the shark unless she's recaptured, but the data they collected showed she was diving deep into the ocean and appeared to be in good health.


Washington D.C.: How long does Monterrey expect they'll keep this shark?

Juliet Eilperin: It's very unclear how long they will keep this shark, because it all depends on how it's doing. It will most likely be in captivity for at least a couple more months, but they monitor it each day to see how it is feeding and relating to other animals in the tank. I would be surprised if they keep it for more than a total of six or seven months.


Great Plains, USA: Hello! I am a lifelong lover of great whites, and a few years ago had the chance to dive with them in South Africa (in a cage.) This was before the cage diving tourism industry was very established, and it was one of the most unique experiences of my life.

My question is, how endangered are great whites, really? It is hard to get a specific read on their populations, though I know that generally speaking, all shark populations are in danger of overfishing etc. What can you tell me about the future success of great white populations?

Juliet Eilperin: It's very hard to know how endangered great white are, partly because we lack comprehensive data on the species. It's clear that people continue to kill great whites, often to collect their fins for shark-fin soup that's popular in Asia. Great white sharks enjoy international protection, in part because scientists are concerned their numbers are dropping.


Vienna, Va.: What, in your opinion, is one way that people can learn to not be afraid with Great Whites?

Juliet Eilperin: Reading about great whites is one way to become familiar with them, and less afraid of them. I'd like to point out that great white sharks can absolutely be dangerous to humans, especially if they mistake a passing surfer for prey. But the fact is at this point, humans pose a much more serious danger to great white sharks than they pose to us.


Anonymous: How can you simulate expansive, ocean-like conditions in an aquarium long term?

Juliet Eilperin: It's obviously hard to simulate expansive ocean conditions in a closed tank, no matter how big it is. However the aquarium scientists have made a number of efforts to help recreate ocean conditions, keeping the water at the right temperature, making sure it has plenty of water, etc. At times they pipe in a sort of curtain of bubbles so the marine creatures can no longer see the tourists gawking at them: that's a way of easing the animals' stress.


Alexandria, Va.: Big fan of sharks, esp. great whites. I printed out your article and am interested to read it, but in your opinion, do you feel the government is doing enough to protect the numbers of these wonderful creatures? I realize the U.S. government can only do so much and legislating against their destruction overseas, esp. in Asia, would require U.N. type intervention, but what are your thoughts on this? Thanks very much.

Juliet Eilperin: The U.S. has pushed hard for the preservation of sharks in international negotiations, including during the current administration. Some environmental experts fear the administration is not doing enough to defend less charismatic shark species, such as the spiny dogfish shark. That species has come under fishing pressure both from domestic fishing interests as well as foreign ones. Europe has more lax shark fishing rules than the U.S., however, which has frustrated conservationists.


Was DC: If memory serves, at least one of the Jaws sharks was a mom...where was this baby caught and were the people who live near by told?

Juliet Eilperin: This great white shark was caught in Santa Monica Bay, where juvenile sharks tend to congregate. People are generally aware that young sharks swim in those waters, since surfers are sometimes bumped by them. Adult sharks do not spend as much time there, however, and the young sharks tend to be fish eaters.


Fairfax, Va.: What is one of the biggest problems that you have known about what has happened related to white sharks and being on display/researched in closed quarters?

Juliet Eilperin: One of the biggest controversies surrounding the previous captive shark is that she had abrasions on her snout-there was a dispute about whether this injury took place before she entered the Outer Bay Exhibit or not.

I should also point out that as of now, no aquarium official has been injured taking care of a captive great white shark. They wear chain mail while diving in the tank, and they carry a pole to fend off any potential attack. Of course, these are trained experts we're talking about.


Washington, D.C.: More a comment than a question - I guess I still don't understand, after reading your piece, why exactly the aquarium has spent so much time, money and effort to house a great white shark. I know you state that they want to inspire people to work for their preservation, but isn't there a better way to inspire people than by keeping one in captivity? There is a reason why these creatures don't do well in captivity and it has nothing to do with the size of the tank or where they are housed before the tank. If we're concerned about preservation of the species, let's start with the one at the aquarium.

Juliet Eilperin: Some people feel exactly the way you do, and it could be that some people may be inspired to preserve a shark just by reading satellite-tracking data posted on the Web by TOPP researchers. For others, however, it takes seeing a great white shark up close to care about the issue and many people cannot afford to go cage diving with one (the way Elizabeth Taylor recently did to celebrate her birthday). It's a valid subject for a debate.


Arlington, Va.: Great article. But have scientists really thought all of this through? If they are successful in raising a Great White in captivity, for example, who will be the poor son-of-a-gun that has to clean the tank?

Juliet Eilperin: Again, I don't think anyone's contemplating actually raising a great white shark in captivity. These sharks can span 20 feet long once they reach adulthood, and that's too much for any human being to handle.


Fremont, Calif.: As a diver for Marine World from 1972-87, I participated in an attempt to keep a white shark alive in captivity. It was scary beforehand, thinking about going into in the dark water with a white shark at night.

Once in the water, it was clear she was an animal in trouble, and we tried to help her breathe, swimming her forward. She was 7'9" long, and weighed 350 pounds. Unfortunately, at three in the morning, she broke away from me, and banged against the wall. The impact gave her a blood clot on the brain, and she died.

Wherever sharks have been killed in great numbers around the world, the result has been tragic. No white sharks? Too many sea lions.


Don C. Reed, author, Notes from an Underwater Zoo, 1981

Juliet Eilperin: Thanks for sharing that story. I think it's unfortunate that several sharks have died in an effort to keep them in captivity, and it's an issue that all responsible scientists, including those at the Monterey Bay Aquarium, take seriously.


West Orange, N.J.: Are Great Whites rare in waters that don't also support their menu of seals and whale carcasses? Do Orcas all but prevent them from competing for salmon? Are their trips to Hawaii a stressful "hunger trek" or is there much food along the way? Are sharks cancer-immune, or is this a clever claim to inspire research grants? Any human benefits to date?

Juliet Eilperin: Great white sharks clearly like to hang out where there's plenty of food, which is why they flock to places like the Farallon Islands near San Francisco, for example. Scientists are still learning about the species' trek to the "Shark Cafe" near Hawaii, so I think they need a little more time before they can tell us more about that migration

And sharks are not, contrary to popular opinion, immune from cancer, though they do have lower cancer rates than humans. This has prompted some entrepreneurs to sell shark pills to combat cancer, though that's not a very scientific way to battle the disease.


Atlanta, GA: Has anyone ever experimented with an open water "enclosure" that could serve as a learning lab for scientists? I'm thinking we have space stations and biospheres, is there a marine equivalent that could be used to study sharks while they are in their environment (versus captivity)? You could build it in near shark heavy populations, and perhaps sharks could move in and out of it for study.

Juliet Eilperin: This is a very interesting question. I don't think anyone has tried this approach-one of the hardest things about studying ocean creatures is that they operate underwater, and can migrate long distances. But certainly scientists are studying marine protected areas across the globe, where marine life thrives without the kind of commercial fishing and other human disturbances that takes place elsewhere.

I'm going to sign off now, but thanks for all the smart questions this afternoon.


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