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Here’s Why We’ve Never Been Able to Tame the Great White Shark

The great white shark has never been kept successfully in captivity—and probably never will.
Image: Lwp Kommunikáció/Flickr

After three days of floating around listlessly and ramming its head into the walls of its tank, a great white shark died last week at an aquarium in Japan. But the story is only the most recent episode in the saga of the animal that zoos haven't been able to conquer.

The shark, an 11.5-foot male, was caught off the coast of Japan, and for a few days was the only great white in captivity in the world. After it arrived at Japan's Okinawa Churaumi Aquarium last week, it refused food and according to a statement, "took a sudden turn [for the] worse." The shark died on Friday.


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The great white shark, perhaps the most feared predator in the ocean and certainly one of its most important, is notorious for faring poorly in captivity. The first great white shark to be held in captivity was at Marineland of the Pacific in 1955, for less than a day. The first great white to be held for a significant amount of time (16 days) was at SeaWorld in 1981. In 2004, the Monterey Bay Aquarium in California exhibited a female great white for just 198 days, getting her to feed in captivity for the first time. She eventually attacked two other sharks that were held in the tank with her, and was released back into the wild shortly after. Others have been held in tanks, but most are released or have died in captivity.

There are several factors that make great whites terrible candidates for captivity, chief among them being the migratory species' propensity to travel great distances. Scientists have found that tagged sharks sometimes end up on the other side of the world—in 2014, one even swam clear across the Atlantic Ocean. They also need a large volume of water and must keep moving in order to keep water flowing over their gills so they can breathe, qualities that amount to a logistical nightmare for aquariums.

In many instances, including the most recent one in Japan, great white sharks that were briefly held in captivity have hit their noses on the glass walls. The one held in Monterey Bay even developed an injury from continually smashing into the glass. This problem may be worsened by the species' sense of electroreception, a skill that allows them to sense electrical charges in the water around them. Scientists have theorized that this may interfere with their ability to sense the glass walls, because of the very small electric charge they give off.


Great white sharks are also more aggressive than, say, an aquarium favorite like a manta ray or a sea turtle. Controlling an animal like this in your facility is no easy task:

Feeding a great white can also become a problem. The apex predators generally eat live prey, unless food is scarce. Aquarium staff would likely have to provide live animals for the shark to eat—a task that is both difficult logistically and not exactly audience-friendly.

It's hard to imagine that, after such a terrible track record, another aquarium would still want to keep a great white shark in a tank—though given last week's events, it hasn't stopped us from trying.

Correction: This article initially stated that the first great white shark to be held in captivity was at SeaWorld in 1981, but it was only the first great white to be held in captivity for a significant amount of time (16 days). The first great white shark to be held in captivity was in Marineland of the Pacific in 1955, for less than a day.