Oceans in Glass: Behind the Scenes of the Monterey Bay Aquarium
Tracking the Great White

great white shark

In the early dawn of March 31, 2005, researchers from the Monterey Bay Aquarium made history. Standing on a small boat far off the coast of California, they carefully lifted a sling carrying a six-foot-long great white shark over the side and — splash! — the powerful fish was back in the wild, after spending a record 198 days at the aquarium.

As NATURE’s Oceans in Glass shows, displaying a great white — one of the sea’s most impressive predators — has long been a dream of aquariums around the world. But previous efforts to care for the sharks — which can grow to weigh two tons and measure 21 feet long — have largely ended in failure. The great whites proved too big, too aggressive, or too sensitive to live penned up. Some wouldn’t eat, says biologist Dr. Randy Kochevar of the aquarium, “and sharks can’t survive long if they aren’t feeding.”

In Monterey, however, biologists working on the aquarium’s shark conservation and ecology project believed it was possible for a great white to survive — and thrive — in one of the facility’s giant display tanks. They also believed that letting the public see these magnificent hunters up close could pay big dividends for their efforts to protect sharks, which are under increasing threat.

With this goal in mind, several years ago the aquarium’s researchers began experimenting with ways to keep a captive shark happy. First, they built an enormous 4-million-gallon pen in the ocean off Malibu, California. When commercial fishing boats accidentally caught a great white, the aquarium arranged for it and several others to be moved to the pen. There, researchers learned to feed the sharks and understand how they behaved in captivity.

Those lessons bore fruit in August 2004, when a commercial halibut fisherman caught a young, five-foot long female great white in the waters off Huntington Beach. After being held in the Malibu pen for three weeks, she was moved to the aquarium for display. Over the next six months, nearly one million people came to see her. “She was an incredible ambassador for white sharks and shark conservation,” says Kochevar.

But the young shark was also growing bigger and more restless. “She basically grew more than a foot and gained 100 pounds,” according to Kochevar. “And one day she apparently decided she needed to increase the breadth of her diet,” which consisted mostly of salmon and other fish fed to her by aquarium staff. The great white began stalking other animals in the tank, eventually attacking two smaller soupfin sharks. The staff decided it was time to release the growing animal back into the wild, but not before she provided one last service to science.

great white shark  

This great white shark was at the Monterey Bay Aquarium for about six months.

On their way to the release site, researchers attached a sophisticated electronic tag to the shark that would record her movements for 30 days and then pop off, transmitting its location to a satellite for retrieval. Similar tags have helped revolutionize our understanding of the habits of a myriad of animals, from sharks and sea turtles to seals and bluefin tuna. Indeed, the aquarium is part of an innovative effort — called the Tagging of Pacific Pelagics (TOPP) project — that is harnessing all kinds of marine animals to carry sensors into the ocean.

In the great white’s case, the tag worked perfectly. After popping off the shark on schedule, the tag was retrieved from surly seas off the coast of Santa Barbara by Stanford University doctoral student Kevin Weng. “They lose container ships out there!” he exclaimed after using a long-handled net to scoop the tag out of the whitecaps.

The researchers say the tag showed that after being released, the shark swam more than 100 miles offshore and to depths of greater than 800 feet. “It’s clear she survived and thrived,” says Kochevar, adding that the shark first swam several hundred miles south along the California coast, “then took a hard right and headed offshore for a while, then returned to the coast. … There’s no question that she was hunting and feeding on her own.”

Similar data from other young sharks is beginning to give scientists a picture of how these animals use the ocean and how people could improve conservation efforts, according to Kochevar. There is little question that the great white’s brief stay at the Monterey Bay Aquarium has helped stoke public support for shark research and conservation, he adds. Not long ago, the aquarium’s trustees decided to increase their shark research budget by half a million dollars.

To learn more about the TOPP project, visit http://topp.org/.

  • sierra

    sharks are the meanest water animal i know!

  • bob

    sometimes sharks bite donkeys. especially sea donkeys. they like the fur. sea donkeys are rare but like sea carrots.

  • Doreen

    I can’t believe what they did to the shark! It is an enormous responsibility to take on this kind of animal and successfully return it to nature. Kind of reminds me of working at New England Wildlife Center. Sometimes you get lucky! Mostly you don’t. Good luck guys!

  • Patricia

    This is a beautiful animal and I found it facinating to learn all about what was done with this shark. Even more I was so happy to find out that everything turned out well for this shark. I hope some day to visit this beautiful aquarium and see all it’s wonders. Thank you for this marvelous story.

  • John Dancy-Jones

    Just saw the great documentary on PBS about the Monterey Aquarium and this shark. Great stuff. Fantastic efforts to be humane and accountable with these animals. Excellent work by aquarists and film staff. I blog about nature at http://www.raleighnature.com.

  • NANCY WALLER

    I LOVED THIS SHOW ESPECIALLY THE SHARK. I USED TO HATE THEM BUT NOW HAVE LEARNED THEY ALSO ARE GODS CREATURES.

  • Jannine williams

    Hi my name is Jannine and I am 40 years of age. I watched the show tonight about Oceans in a Glass. I loved the show! I wopuld love to see more about sharks and their lives, in fact I would like to see more about aligators, crocs,whales and orcas. Is that possible?

  • Judi O.

    The old cliche, ‘A powerful source to be reckoned with’ certainly describes Mother Nature. In watching this episode I couldn’t help but believe She would be overtaken by her natural instinct to hunt, stalk, and feed. My thanks to all the dedicated scientists and oceanographers, et al, that contribute to studies of our waters; and, also for returning this beautiful creature to Her oceans to continue to live and thrive. I hope one day to visit the aquarium and be in awe.

  • susan J.

    I liked the tuna fish segement- great to see researchers who work with these majestic animals.
    Nice going!

  • shoonte

    u stupid bches

  • Edith Drury

    This program was a call from my past. I went to Humboldt State University to study these beautiful creatures, but life had other plans for me. I visit the Aquarium whenever I can. Thank you for this wonderful program. Spreading the word about these, and other, magnificent animals is truly important. Please continue your great work!

  • Todd Jonz

    As a longtime resident of the Monterey Bay area now living in Vermont and Prince Edward Island, it was a real treat to watch “Oceans in Glass” this evening. The abundance of jellies in the waters of PEI makes me think of the Monterey Bay Aquarium often (although the kelp forest will always be my favorite exhibit.) Hearing the story of the great white shark tonight reminded me of the amazing work that the MBARI folks do, and it never ceases to amaze me when they pull off the near impossible.

  • jannette

    Thanks for a wonderful show. All segments were so interesting and so well presented. I missed the shark when I visited the Aquarium before, but “know” most of the other animals. Can’t wait to see them again. In fact, I may go for a visit next week!

  • Dave Rollins

    PBS Nature is my favorite show and tonites show was a great example of why I love it, I also agree with #7, if you could do more on those animals it would be great!

  • ed

    amazing documentary thanks!!

  • Kenneth J Silva

    Great show, Thanks. I wish they would have kept the Great White and just see what she eats most and just see what would hapen. I think they cut the experience way to short. Oh well it worked out well anyway
    Thans again.

  • Squadboy

    I wonder if your former female visitor was the shark which made a meal out of that poor fellow off the San Diego shore? what a liability lawsuit that would be!

  • Arlene

    Thank you pbs and MBAquarium! So beautiful.
    You are using the Gifts God gave you all and sharing the beauty of creation with us. Thank you!

  • Andi

    Magnificent. I hope the shark remains happy & healthy. I’m sure the other animals at the aquarium are happy she’s free and they are no longer on her menu! :-)

  • benjamin jordan

    i love great whites, they are so intelligent

  • sarah frederick

    sharks are dangeros but they can be a little senstive with their attidudes of Great white Sharks are really scary to me!!

  • brian z

    The great white shark are relly asome animals

  • Annie

    Great show! Now I want to take a trip to the Monterey Bay Aquarium. I’ll see you soon.

  • erin lobo wolf

    I have something to say to Bob, he is number two on the list: What the heck are you talking about you lunatic?

  • karen scanlon

    I think what they are doing at the Monterey Bay Aquarium is wonderful. They’re educating more people on the beautiful life that is living in the ocean.

  • Isa

    Sharks are amazing! I love them! =)
    I wouldn’t want to find one in the ocean though…

  • jack tuite

    explain to me how all the fish this preditor will consume are less important than it is. Once you inject human perception and activity into the natural order your obligied to to account for every minnow which passes through its jaws. if i’m wrong ask the minnows, each and every one? The spectacle of intelligent people going to such extraordinary lengths to interfere in the natural order is depressing. Why capture the beast in the first place?

  • Steven

    It is great to see one animal that can, by it’s very nature, remain free.

  • Jenny Treloar

    I went to the aquarium in 2009. I wish she had been there. what a thrill that would have been. My kids would have loved it, but I am glad she is free and doing well.

  • Lary9

    I’m sure this Carcharodon carcharias hug-fest is a good thing and I loved the show but I’ve got a 20 inch scimitar scar on my right leg from a Great White bite and I wasn’t so happy when that happened, mate. You know, prior to 1916 people didn’t believe sharks would attack a human being. Then came the summer of wake up calls along the Jersey shore—when the dinner bell rang. Even so, why is it so hard to understand? Nature itself is about the search for food. You know nobody has ever been attacked by a shark at a stop light on Main St. USA. Habitat…habitat…habitat. It’s why I hung up my surf board and stay on the sidewalk now.

  • Raoul

    It was good to see the great white shark portrayed as it truly is and not as some mythological monster.The shark deserves our respect and admiration for the marvel of nature that it is.We only fear what we do not understand.

  • ANGEL LUIS

    Vine a ver hoy el programa sobre seguir al gran tiburon blanco… fue muy interesante en la forma que manejaron su estadia y posterior liberacion . Los felicito desde Puerto Rico, y se que el prog. ” NATURE ” ,siempre sera un excito!

  • Ken Martin

    Excellent program, my thanks and prayers for your often unappreciated behind the scenes long hours of observations and conscientious efforts of learning as much as is possible about the dynamic world of nature we are in the position to maintain and enhance. Making the research and knowledge learned available to the greatest audience possible creates a better informed public who can then hopefully contribute their individual efforts towards the universal goals of better managing the sensitive environmental conditions where all living creatures can be respected and enjoyed. The dynamic inter relationships of predatory apex creatures such as White Sharks on the health of the oceans and therefore on our health is evident to some and is important to be learned by everyone who will make decisions effecting their future and ours. Making your programs interesting and educational is certainly contributing to a more responsible public. Thank you again for your works of love and the benefits we all are provided by your diligence.

  • Pup

    The only animal that is mean are humans. We live on the Earth which is habitat for all animals. We are food just like any other animal. from viruses and bacteria and fungi and parasites to lions and sharks and grizzlies and army ants we are food. We are part of nature not apart from it. Weather, natural disaster, animals and plants all affect us, just as we affect all of them. Welcome to Gaia aka Planet Earth. Live here at your own risk and modify it at your own risk also. You have been warned.

  • Jimknocke

    Thanks PBS for bringing such excellent programming with a wonderful cross section of nature. The current programming on the tuna and great white is so captivating and enlightening that you cannot help but stay focused on the screen.

  • apple

    just finished watching the show with my 3yr old son and my 8yr old niece it kept them quiet and interested now they are asking me when they can go to aquarium and i learnd a few things myself

  • Allison

    Fascinating! The Monterey Bay Aquarium scores another victory. Extremely informative. Thanks Hilary for letting me know of this project on the PBS website!!!

  • daniel

    i think we should put trackers on all the great whites we can, and put up a site where divers and surfers can look at so we can avoid geting bit and die, i cant understand why there isent a site like that yet isent that a very smart idea somebody tell me what they think

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