Until 2004, attempts to hold a great white shark in captivity had been mostly unsuccessful, ending in either the death or early release of the shark. Attempts in the 1960’s and 70’s were made by aquariums in the USA, Australia and South Africa with most lasting only a day or so.
The most famous attempt to keep a shark in captivity prior to 2004 was made by Steinhart Aquarium in 1980. “Sandy”, a female 2.3m white shark, was kept for 5 days before being returned to the wild as a result of her constantly bumping into the sides of the tank and her refusal to eat a thing. Her behaviour was a common failing in most attempts to house great whites. Not only was it extremely difficult to encourage them to eat, but they seemed to be ultra sensitive to any slight imperfections in the tank which resulted in them becoming disoriented and sometimes inflicting damage on themselves by swimming and bumping into the enclosure walls.
In September 2004, Monterey Bay Aquarium broke all records and housed a small female white shark in captivity for 198 days before releasing her into the wild in March 2005. Housed in a 3.8 million-litre exhibit, the female shark fed on salmon fillet the first day of her captivity after transport from the ocean pen. In this time she grew from 5 feet and 62 pounds, to 6’4” and 162 pounds. During her time in captivity, she was viewed by nearly a million people. She was released after she killed two soupfin sharks housed in the same tank, and due to her progressively worsening aggressive behaviour.
In October 2006, the aquarium captured a juvenile male outside Santa Monica Bay. He was exhibited for 137 days before being released back into the wild in January 2007. He grew from 5’8” and 103 pounds, to 6’5” and 171 pounds during his stay. His early release was prompted by the 4-inch wound he sustained from occasionally bumping the tanks glass.
Both sharks were fitted with satellite tags upon their release and their subsequent movements tracked for up to 3 months. The female travelled more than 100 miles offshore in only 30 days.
While controversial, exhibiting white sharks in captivity can have benefits for the conservation efforts of the species. It allows a huge contribution to the public understanding and protection, allowing large numbers of people to view and learn about a species they would otherwise probably never see close up. However, it is a notoriously difficult exercise, in part due to the white shark’s size and disposition, their apparent lack of appetite when housed, and logistical problems with capture and transportation. Many pelagic species do poorly in captivity and are often released when they begin to show signs of stress.