I remember hearing a story of a boat captain who used to take intermediate scuba diving students off-shore for their first open water dive over an old wreck that was sunk to create a reef. While the already nervous students where getting into their wet gear and inspecting their equipment, the captain would play the theme music to the movie Jaws – unkind and amusing at the same time. It does, however, speak to the place that great white sharks have carved out in our conscience – a place of awe, fascination and even fear. Yet, despite it being such an iconic species, in many regards, we know very little about them.
In 2002, the Monterey Bay Aquarium in California started the White Shark Research Project. The goal was twofold, to study the great white shark in the wild and to bring a great white shark to the Aquarium to exhibit. Exhibiting this species had been tried before over the course of the previous half century, but had never been successfully achieved. Adopting a methodical approach that included extensive field work and establishing a four-million gallon net pen as a half-way house to ensure the sharks were healthy and feeding, Aquarium staff worked towards bringing a great white to Monterey.
In August of 2004 a commercial fisherman brought in a young great white that was caught in his net – she was placed in the pen where she seemed adapt and was feeding well. She was brought to the Aquarium on 14 September of that year.
She was an instant hit with the public and generated international media coverage. After six months on exhibit, she started to exhibit aggressive behavior to other sharks in the exhibit and had grown to the point where it might make transportation back the ocean more challenging, as a result, she was tagged and returned to the wild. Since then, the Aquarium has placed four other great whites on exhibit and has returned them all safely to their Pacific home.
“Exhibiting juvenile great white sharks successfully for the first time anywhere has gone hand-in-hand with our field research program to better understand how we can help this threatened species,” the Monterey Bay Aquarium’s Director of Conservation Chris Harrold notes. “Awe and respect usually replace fear and misunderstanding once you see them on exhibit.”
The Aquarium’s Great White Research Project, working in collaboration with partners in Mexico and the U.S., is shedding light on various aspects of the great white shark population in the eastern Pacific. One interesting fact that the research unveiled is that the great white shark population off the coast of California – believed to be approximately 220 – is genetically distinct from other great white shark populations – in other words, it is a population that has long been isolated. This makes it susceptible as any negative impacts on its population won’t be made up for by additions from other great whites from other regions.
To learn more about what Monterey Bay Aquarium is learning from the Great White Shark Project, visit www.montereybayaquarium.org/cr/whiteshark.aspx. The Aquarium has produced a wonderful book that is a quick read and includes some stunning photography – for that, you can visit www.montereybayaquarium.org/store/books.aspx.
You can put your toes back in the water now.