• Great White Shark Special Effects •
BY ANNE SOBLE
The Monterey Bay Aquarium currently is setting up its four-million-gallon ocean holding pen off the Malibu coastline and, within a week or so, a crew will begin monitoring live catches of juvenile great white sharks with an eye to acquiring one to put on public display.
It is an annual ritual in near shore Malibu waters, which are described by marine experts as ideal white shark nurseries. "Young-of-the-year" whites are fish eaters that thrive in the warm local water temperatures where they pose no danger to humans. Those of us who swim far out from the coast are usually completely unaware of their presence.
Great white sharks are an endangered species because they are slow to reproduce and because growing marketing pressure is decimating all sharks worldwide. Whites are protected in California and all U.S. coastal waters. Malibu's juvies will move to colder waters as they grow in size and begin to require a diet of larger pinnipeds—seals, sea lions and elephant seals.
The MBA exhibit of a young great white shark is one element of Project White Shark; research to learn more about white sharks in the wild, as well as to raise funds to finance science projects and public policy implementation for shark protection. A suitable specimen for exhibition must be able to withstand the formidable physical and psychological stress of temporary confinement.
I am philosophically opposed to the unnatural confinement of wild animals for entertainment value, but have wrestled with the possible social and scientific benefits that might accrue should a great white on display help to raise funds for shark research and conservation.
The scruples issue is compounded by a sincere belief that in 2012 there are such superior technological tools available that a simulated shark experience can be far more dramatic than watching an isolated animal circling endlessly on auto-pilot or injuring itself in an attempt to escape the monotony of captivity.
The people at MBA care about the marine life they work with. Many of them are sincere about the sense of loss and shortcoming they experience when an animal does not survive the confinement and release process.
There are options. No animal needs to be harmed in a multi-media special effects presentation that simulates the immersion of aquarium visitors in waters inhabited by sharks. The sharks can swim beneath the visitors, overhead, and around them. The sharks, whether life-sized five-foot juveniles or 14-or-more-foot adults can swim within inches of the visitors. Light, sound, and images can create a sensory experience unmatched by anything offered at any aquarium or marine park.
Taking it a step further, since Americans' gore quotient appears to know no bounds, imagine being submerged in the water as a great white bull dispatches an elephant seal and the roiling ocean water turns a deep blood-red hue. I have watched this take place from the safety of a boat deck, and appreciate the imagery potential of the kind of total immersion special effects program that could become an international attraction and ensure that funding for research would never be lacking.
Putting a live shark on display until it exhibits behavioral and physical health problems is desharking, as well as dehumanizing. MBA and its research partners' preeminence in live catch-tag-immediate release-and ongoing study research is contributing greatly to our knowledge of sharks, and this is expected to continue exponentially. It is this knowledge that will help to change public attitudes and lead to support and funding of strong conservation measures for these magnificent animals that do battle daily with the severity of the sea and the ignorance of man.