The Real Reason Aquariums Never Have Great White Sharks

It's probably not what you're thinking.

The reason that you never see great white sharks in aquariums seems obvious, right? You might assume it’s because they’re dangerous… except that’s actually not the reason why (although, they’re just one of the animals out there that aren’t as dangerous as we all think). Throughout the years, many aquariums have actually attempted to showcase a captive great white alongside the other sharks that you may find on display, but it never ends well for the great white shark.

With attempts at captivity and display surging in the early ’70s, great white sharks were advertised at major aquariums around the world, but the sharks, unfortunately, would usually not survive long. In their tanks, the great white sharks would not eat and need help swimming, and within days or weeks, the sharks would be dead. Before 2004, the longest a great white shark lasted in an aquarium was just 16 days.

According to a Vox video, in 2004, the Monterey Bay Aquarium did manage to keep a young great white shark for a record 198 days in captivity, but it wasn’t easy. The tank was specially designed for open ocean animals, holding 1 million gallons of water and reaching a depth of 35 feet. The shark in question was only 4 feet long. Adult great white sharks typically measure about 15 feet. According to the video, the smaller size allowed for a smaller tank, and the age of the shark meant that it was still consuming a diet of mainly fish, as opposed to the mammal diet—think seals, sea turtles, and small whales—of a more mature great white. This too allowed for an easier time feeding the animal, a large problem with past attempts. And no, humans are not part of that diet—humans kill more sharks than sharks kill people, just one of the fascinating (and reassuring) facts about sharks you never knew.

In addition to addressing size, and dietary needs, the Monterey Bay Aquarium transitioned the shark from open ocean to the egg-shaped tank by containing the shark in a four million gallon open ocean pen which allowed them to monitor the year-old shark to ensure that it was in good health and that it would feed before transporting the shark from southern California where it was caught to the Monterey Bay campus.

Great White Shark Underwater Photo in Open WaterWillyam Bradberry/Shutterstock

Within six months of capture and display, the aquarium decided to release the shark back into the wild after it attacked and killed two non-great white sharks that were in captivity with it. Over the following years, the aquarium displayed several other infant great whites, but none of them reached the full 198 days this particular attempt had managed.

According to the Vox video, sharks, like most fish, breathe by filtering oxygen out of the water that passes through their gills. While some fish are able to pump the water in and out of their gills using their mouths, great white sharks, and many other types of fish, need to be constantly in motion for water to enter their gills. This means that as soon as the sharks stop moving, they start to weaken, and struggle breathing. Pelagic sharks like the great white are nomadic and can travel incredibly long distances in a very short time frame. Because of this, they were struggling in the relatively small tanks at Monterey Bay Aquarium—even developing sores and scrapes, gained from repeatedly swimming into the walls of the enclosure.

After the aquarium released their sixth great white back into the ocean after only 55 days in 2011, they ended their great white exhibition program. “It’s a very, very, very resource intensive program, and we felt like we had accomplished our goal of introducing the general public to a live white shark,” said John Hoech, director of husbandry operations at the Monterey Bay Aquarium in an interview about the program’s discontinuation.

For the most part, this experiment by Monterey Bay put an end to the captivity of great white sharks, but in 2016, an aquarium in Japan displayed an 11-foot shark that had been caught in a fisherman’s net. The shark lasted only three days before dying, and the aquarium put out an official statement ending their great white exhibition program as well, according to NPR. Great white sharks just aren’t suited for captivity—after learning more about how smart and resourceful sharks are, we think they’re far more impressive—and happy—in the wild.

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Isabel Roy
Isabel Roy has been a writer and editor for RD.com since February of 2019. She graduated from the University of Wisconsin La Crosse with a Bachelor of Arts degree in Writing and Rhetoric. She is thrilled to be living and working in the Big Apple although she misses the easy access to freshly made Wisconsin cheese curds and Kopps Custard. When not at the Reader’s Digest office, you can find her downing too many chai lattes and rereading her favorite Harry Potter books.