Hungry shark released in Malibu waters

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Researchers release the shark after four days in captivity. The shark started eating just before its release; the first time a great white has been documented feeding in captivity.

By Kevin J. Previtali/Special to The Malibu Times

Penned in the waters off Point Dume in Malibu, but apparently on a hunger strike, a captured juvenile great white shark was set free by researchers Monday morning.

Known for its voracious appetite and willingness to take a bite out of a surfboard every now and then, the great white shark has a reputation that belies the reality of the endangered creature. So when researchers from the Monterey Bay Aquarium took possession of the 1-year-old female, which had been captured by a chartered fishing boat’s gill net outside of Ventura Harbor a week ago, they were hoping to take it back home with them to Monterey to study it.

Caged in a free-floating underwater ocean pen for four days, the 77-pound predator frustrated researchers by refusing to accept the offerings of sardines and mackerel-until the last minute, said Monterey Bay Aquarium spokesperson Ken Peterson. The shark was feeding on salmon.

Just as researchers had decided it was too late in the season to go through all the steps needed to transport and house the great white shark, it began to feed-a very rare occurrence.

Researchers have tried for decades to exhibit great whites in aquariums, but due to their refusal to feed while in captivity, the longest one has been kept alive is 21 days. This newly captured female was “the first documented case of a great white shark feeding in captivity,” Peterson said. The researchers photographed and videotaped the momentous event before releasing the shark into ocean waters.

The hunt for a great white shark for the Monterey Bay Aquarium’s million-gallon Outer Bay exhibit is in the second season of a three-year research project.

The floating structure used to temporarily house captured sharks holds 5 million gallons of ocean water. It has “mesh [walls], kind of like an above-ground ‘Do-Boy’ pool,” Peterson said.

“We rented one for a month, for the purpose of capturing a white shark,” said Dave Parker, a senior biologist for the California Department of Fish and Game.

The pens help the sharks become acclimated to a limited swimming area and to see if the sharks will feed normally.

Before releasing the young shark, researchers tagged it, which will track the shark for 60 days. Then the tag will float to the water’s surface, sending information about the shark’s hunting and territorial habits via an electronic satellite monitor.

Of the decision to release the shark, Peterson said, “There are benchmarks of success we need to see before we go to Fish and Game and ask for permission to bring the shark back to the aquarium. We need a high level of confidence before we do that.”

“I’m glad they’re letting it go,” said local resident Rob LaMond, who has taught ocean safety to children for the past 35 years.

“Once in a while we will see a baby [shark], but they are usually pretty timid, unless you look like a crab. Since I have been doing my safety classes, we have never had any type of problems.”

For the Monterey researchers, this is the second year of a $1.2 million three-year project. Last year, they failed to capture a wild shark. After penning this one, biologists were extremely pleased with the new information gathered in the brief time.

“There isn’t a lot of detailed history of this species,” Parker said. “That is another reason why they are putting tags on it.”

When a great white is finally put into captivity, it will join other species such as the mysterious hammerhead shark, among others. Another purpose for the study is to dismiss the predator reputation given to the great white from movies, like “Jaws.” Studies have shown that the great white is an important part of the ocean’s ecosystem. In the past few years, the population of the slowly reproducing shark has decreased, due to over-fishing.