Monterey County Herald, Saturday, October 7, 2000 by Kathleen Wong, Herald Staff Writer

There's a killer in our midst

Aquarium's Outer Bay exhibit features an oceanic whitetip shark


Her lines are slender and lean, her flanks a stealthy olive drab. White accents add a jaunty flair to the tips of her fins. But make no mistake - she's a killer.

The toothy newcomer that joined the Monterey Bay Aquarium's Outer Bay exhibit Thursday night is a deadly female whitetip shark.

Although not as infamous as the coastal great whites, whitetips may be much more perilous to people. The killed hundreds of shipwreck survivors after the World War II sinkings of the Nova Scotia and the USS Indianapolis, and have mauled their share of downed fighter pilots. Even Jacques Cousteau has described them as the most dangerous of the world's 360 species of sharks.

Whatever one might think of her dietary decisions, this shark is one smooth-looking predator. Long, swept-back pectoral fins giver her 5-foot-long, 50-pound body the profile of a 747. Like airplane wings, they provide her with lift without having to swim fast.

She is the only whitetip shark on display anywhere in the world.

An Indonesian aquarium has kept several oceanic whitetip sharks in the past, and a Hawaiian aquarium kept one for a while but never put it on display. Scientists know very little about their habits.

"We're hoping she'll first get stabilized and feeding," said Manny Ezcurra, a senior aquarist who helped collect the shark. Ezcurra and other aquarium stff captured the whitetip 200 miles off the coast of Baja California earlier this week on an annual expedition to restock the Outer Bay exhibit with tuna and other fish.

"We wanted to show one of the more common species of sharks found offshore," Ezcurra said.

After the aquarists caught her on a tuna line, she withstood a 57-hour trip into port, a 9-hour trip up to Monterey from San Diego in a tank lugged by a flatbed semi, and she was in the water by 6PM Thursday night.

"Evidently she's adapting quite well," said Karen Jeffries, spokeswoman for the aquarium. "We don't know much about whitetips yet. We'd like to see if the artificial environment is suitable for them."

The new shark certainly looked at home, swimming slowly about the roomy million-gallon tank with two pilot fish already at her tail.

"When they first put her in the tank, the pilots came right up to her. It's a natural behavior for them," Ezcurra said. In the wild, pilot fish serve as a macabre cleanup crew, surviving on scraps from shark meals.

The whitetip shares the tank's balmy 68-degree water with other open ocean animals including yellowfin tuna, sea turtles, barracuda and bonita. Most of those animals appear regularly on wild whitetips' menus, but Jeffries says the survival odds of other Outer Bay residents are probably quite good. "We hope to keep her fed well enough that there will be no fatalities."

Ezcurra says getting her to eat will probably be the trickiest thing about keeping her alive. Today is a regular feeding day at the exhibit, when aquarists scatter about 200 pounds of squid and bait fish for all of the tank's animals to eat.

"Hopefully she'll get excited and eat," Ezcurra said.

If that fails, he'll try to tempt her the way he feeds the other sharks. He starts by dumping an odoriferous slop of fish blood and bits on the water's surface. The sharks smell the oil and start swimming faster as they switch into feeding mode. That's when Ezcurra dangles whole fish attached to long poles in front of their faces, which he waves around to imitate a chase before the shark eats.

Sharks may have a menacing reputations, but in reality, we pose a much greater danger to them than they do to us.

"Prices for shark fins have gone through the roof in the last 10 years. Animals that were once released as bycatch are now being target," Ezcurra said. In Hong Kong, a pound of dried fins reportedly sells for as much as $250. But an economic boom n Asia, where shark fin soup is popular, has meant that more and more people can afford the pricey dish.

Longline tuna fisheries based out of Hawaii haul in two or three sharks for every tuna they catch on their 25-mile-long lines. Fisheries experts estimate that the United States and Mexico regularly harvest 100,000 tons of shark every year, and the vast majority are finned for soup.

Scientists say heavy fishing will decimate populations of the late-maturing and slow-to-reproduce animals. The soupfin sharks in the Outer Bay exhibit are a sobering example. The species was heavily fished before World War II for the oil in their large livers.

"Their populations have never really come back, even though that was over 50 years ago," Ezcurra said.

Added April 2002. Back to previous page
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