The Complete History of Great White Sharks in Aquariums (Never Lived More than 198 Days!)

Great White Sharks in Aquariums
vladoskan from Getty Images and Julen Garces from Pexels/ via Canva.com

Written by Kristen Holder

Published: May 29, 2024

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Can you keep a great white shark in an aquarium? Has anyone tried? We’ll go over a comprehensive history of great whites in aquariums even though the longest stay was only 198 days!

Great white sharks are known for their huge migrations that sweep across the globe. They’re also known for being ferocious, though more great whites are killed by humans every year than the other way around. The average life span of a great white can be anywhere from 40 to 70 years of age.

Trial and error have not yielded results that suggest the great white shark can successfully be kept in captivity. While aquarium professionals have tried extensively to keep these sharks in captivity, it has never worked.

Great white sharks need to maintain high speeds to live. They require a high amount of oxygen to function, and they can’t suck water in to pass over their gills. Therefore, they must always remain active.

Popularizing the Great White Shark

What Do Great White Sharks Eat?

When

Jaws

was released, Americans became captivated with great white sharks.

Public interest in great white sharks surged in the 1970s after the release of Jaws. While Jaws isn’t a realistic depiction of great white sharks, it did bring them to the forefront of the American imagination. This created interest in seeing great white sharks on display.

1970s-1990s

During this time frame, many aquariums tried to capture and keep great white sharks. It was discovered that they’re not easy to trap and once they are trapped they injure themselves. Most died, some were released, and the longest-lasting shark only made it 6 months.

OceanWorld in Sydney, Australia

November 1993

This was the very first time that a great white had successfully been transported to a museum. However, it immediately started showing erratic behavior.

It began smashing itself into the glass of its enclosure and OceanWorld released the shark back into the wild after 5 days. It’s believed that sounds and other stimulants overwhelmed and disoriented the shark.

Tuna Cage Captivity

Great White Shark stalks diver

While being trapped in a tuna cage isn’t the same as being in an aquarium, it does allow scientists to observe captive sharks.

Great white sharks are sometimes caught by tuna fishermen which, when reported, provides scientists with a great opportunity to observe captive behavior. It’s estimated that tuna cage captivity has occurred hundreds of times, but there are only a few recorded instances.

2002 in Tripoli, Libya

A great white shark was trapped in a tuna cage off the coast of Libya in the Mediterranean Sea. It broke into the tuna trap and the towing boat responsible for the cage observed the shark for 2.5 hours. Recordings and photographs were taken of the event.

It took the shark 2.5 days to vacate the trap and it chewed a hole through the enclosure’s net to do so. Sharks sneaking into Mediterranean fish traps is a more common occurrence than desired. This has sparked conservation efforts that focus on the impact of the tuna industry on local shark populations.

June 19th, 2003 in Port Lincoln, South Australia

On June 24th, the shark was successfully released from the cage. This is an important achievement because it’s proven very difficult to coax a great white out of a tuna cage. They either vacate on their own or die but they do not respond to human efforts to release them.

This is the first recorded incident of sharks being caught in this location, but as the study that recorded them progressed, other instances of capture occurred. The dates of these subsequent captures are September 2003 and May 2004.

What Do Great White Sharks Eat?

Great white shark pups are big fans of lobster and crab, as well as smaller fish and sharks

June 30th, 2003 in the Coronado Islands in Mexico

A great white shark was caught in a bluefin tuna cage and efforts to release it failed. It was killed.

Monterey Bay Aquarium in California – 198 Days in Captivity!

While the Monterey Bay Aquarium has been keeping live great white sharks for short periods in their facilities, their 2004-2009 study is the most famous. It has helped inform conservation efforts and it’s educated the aquarium community on the unsuitability of great whites in captivity.

1984

The Monterey Bay Aquarium obtained its first great white shark, but it died after 11 days. The enclosure that was used to keep sharks successfully a few decades later hadn’t been developed yet.

2004-2009 – 198 Days in Captivity!

Great White Captivity

Monterey Bay Aquarium’s test was unsuccessful.

In conjunction with various universities, the Monterey Bay Aquarium attempted to display young great white sharks. Their Outer Bay exhibit displays hammerheads and other large bony fishes and it played host to these sharks.

Some of the sharks wouldn’t feed including one specimen that was released because of this, in 2008, after 11 days. Other sharks that did feed stayed in the tank but became progressively more aggressive toward other fish.

The rest of the sharks lasted 70-198 days and they were primarily fed Pacific mackerel and king salmon since they weren’t old enough for a diet consisting of mammals.

The longest-lasting, which survived 198 days in captivity, was released because it was eating other sharks in the tank. It may have been able to handle a longer stay if it wasn’t putting its neighbors in jeopardy. Unfortunately, it was killed by a fisherman in Mexico after its release.

Before this, the longest a great white had lasted in captivity was 16 days. Some of the sharks almost solely stuck to one food source while the others had more diversified diets.

The sharks used during the duration of the program grew at twice the expected rate given what has been observed with wild specimens.

2011

The most recent great white shark kept at the aquarium died minutes after it was released. It had undergone 55 days in captivity. It was released on Oct. 25th, 2011 near Goleta, California.

No one at the aquarium had predicted that the shark wouldn’t do well in the wild.

The Monterey Bay Aquarium’s website currently states that their research questions have been answered and they will no longer be keeping great white sharks in captivity.

Okinawa Churaumi Aquarium in Japan

January 5th-8th, 2016

The Okinawa Churaumi Aquarium in Japan obtained a great white shark that they retrieved from a fisherman. This shark died after only 3 days. It was part of an exhibit about dangerous sharks, but it wouldn’t eat. Its health declined rapidly, and the aquarium canceled its great white shark program.

What is the Largest Shark in Captivity?

Underwater wide angle shot of a Whale Shark swimming in open blue ocean

Georgia Aquarium is the only place in the United States where you can see a

whale shark

in captivity.

Whale sharks have been successfully kept in aquariums in several locations throughout the world. In the United States, the Georgia Aquarium, located in Atlanta, is the only place in this country where you can see a whale shark in captivity. This aquarium even has a program called Journey with Gentle Giants where you are given the opportunity to swim with them. In addition to this location, you will see them at the following locations:

Whale sharks are the largest sharks in the ocean or aquarium, and adults have average lengths of between 18 and 32 feet, while newborns are between 21 and 25 inches. The largest confirmed species was an impressive 61.7 feet. Alice, the whale shark who resided at the Georgia Aquarium since 2006, passed away in 2021 after 15 years in captivity.


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About the Author

Kristen Holder is a writer at A-Z Animals primarily covering topics related to history, travel, pets, and obscure scientific issues. Kristen has been writing professionally for 3 years, and she holds a Bachelor's Degree from the University of California, Riverside, which she obtained in 2009. After living in California, Washington, and Arizona, she is now a permanent resident of Iowa. Kristen loves to dote on her 3 cats, and she spends her free time coming up with adventures that allow her to explore her new home.

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