She's hardly the picture of primal terror: a 4- ft. 4-in., 62-lb. baby great white shark, circling the 1 million-gal. Outer Bay tank at California's Monterey Bay Aquarium. Her arrival in Monterey on Sept. 14 was a milestone. Though the world's aquariums are stocked with many of the other 386 species of shark, no one has successfully exhibited a great white for longer than 16 days. At least 37 have died in aquarium tanks during the past three decades. The most obvious problem has been that, once captured, the sharks refused to eat. They became disoriented, clearly bothered by even the faintest electrical currents emanating from lights and heaters.
Noting that the sharks were often in bad shape before they even arrived at the aquariums, owing to the trauma of their capture, Monterey Bay Aquarium's scientists tried to make the transfer of their new arrival--accidentally snagged by a gill-net fisherman off the Southern California coast--as stress-free as possible. She was transported to a 4 million-gal. ocean pen, where she remained for 25 days, monitored by a team of marine biologists and released only after she began eating and appeared to have fully recovered. The strategy seems to have worked: on her first day in the tank, the shark snatched salmon fillets from a pole and swam calmly among the other sharks and sea creatures in the tank. Since then, she has continued to thrive.
Still, the aquarium is prepared to release the shark immediately if she shows any sign of failing. Despite its villainous reputation from the movie Jaws, the great white is a complicated and mysterious fish--and surprisingly little is known about its life. Although great whites are a protected species along the California coast, elsewhere shark populations have been decimated by overfishing and finning (the illegal practice of slicing off a shark's fins and then tossing its body overboard). Great whites have always been rare and reproduce slowly, making them especially vulnerable to these threats. The World Wildlife Federation has named them one of the 10 species most likely to become extinct. The aquarium hopes that exposing the public to a live great white will educate and inspire conservation. "Great whites have a different aura," says Randy Kochevar, Monterey Bay Aquarium's science communication manager. "People are awestruck. When they see her, they understand." --By Susan Casey