Great white shark released from popular California aquarium has died

A young great white shark released on Oct. 25 after 55 days of captivity at the Monterey Bay Aquarium died not long after it was set free, according to aquarium staff.

The male shark was turned loose because it had begun swimming erratically in the aquarium’s one-million-gallon main exhibit tank. It seemed to be fine as it swam to freedom after being transported to an area off Goleta, scientists said, but data retrieved from an electronic tracking tag recovered Sunday revealed that the 4-foot, 10-inch shark died soon after its release.

The tag was designed to pop free if there were no movements after 96 hours, and that’s what happened in this case.

“This is a very difficult day for all of us, and for everyone who saw and cared about this animal,” said Jon Hoech, the aquarium’s director of husbandry. “Based on the shark’s behavior and condition prior to release, we had every confidence that he’d do well back in the wild. Unfortunately, that’s not how things turned out. We’re surprised and saddened by the outcome.”

The image at top right and is of the shark in captivity. The video shows the shark a day before its release.

The shark was the sixth kept and ultimately released as part of a program that is controversial because some believe that profit is the primary motive for keeping a great white in captivity. The Central California aquarium is the world’s only facility to have kept white sharks for extended periods. Millions have visited the facility specifically to view a captive white shark.

The program has been defended as a means of helping to change people’s perspectives about white sharks, and teaching visitors to the aquarium about the apex predators’ importance to marine ecosystems. The capture program is part of a broader tag-and-release program involving juvenile white sharks off Southern California, in an attempt to learn more about their movements and habits. (White sharks are protected off California but the aquarium works under special permits.)

All but one of the previous five sharks placed in captivity and eventually released survived at least beyond the life of their tags. One of those sharks, however, died four months after its release, after being caught in a fishing net off Baja California, Mexico.

Another of the sharks was released after only 11 days because it did not adapt well inside the exhibit space.

The predators are monitored very carefully by aquarium staff. However, the death of the latest captive shark is sure to inspire more criticism of the program.

Hoech said Wednesday that all procedures and protocols will be reviewed in the wake of this revelation.

“Our animal care staff is unrivaled in its knowledge of young great white sharks,” said Jim Hekkers, the aquarium’s managing director. “I’m proud of the passion and dedication they demonstrate each day. This is a difficult time for all of us.”

Photo is courtesy of Monterey Bay Aquarium/Tyson Rininger