posted October 02, 2004 11:37 AM
Monterey -- A shark did something important Friday by swimming around and around in a circle and not dying.
The shark, a great white, survived its 17th day in captivity. That broke the all-time record for great whites which, historically, tend to go belly up in aquarium tanks.
Not this one. She made the rounds inside a giant tank at the Monterey Bay Aquarium with 70 other fish, none of which she ate. Everyone was getting along swimmingly.
"This is a relaxed shark, an unstressed shark,'' said shark keeper Manny Ezcurra. "I can't say if she's a happy shark, but she's adapting well.''
She certainly ought to be, in light of the regal treatment that the aquarium has bestowed upon her. She is fed salmon fillets on a stick every other day, her soft and gentle killer eyes have been protected from the flash cameras of her admirers, and she is surrounded by exhibits proclaiming just how wonderful, misunderstood, rare and unfairly maligned sharks are.
About 30,000 additional visitors, at $20 a ticket, have come to the aquarium since the year-old shark arrived Sept. 15, after being accidentally caught by a halibut fisherman off the Orange County coast. Attendance is up by 50 percent, and most of those folks head directly from the front gate to the three-story Outer Bay tank.
There, aquarium docents admonish all guests to turn off their flash cameras, lest the bright lights scare the poor shark. This accommodation was not made for the tuna, barracuda and giant turtle that had been living in the tank before the shark's arrival, but there is nothing fair about life below the surface.
"These people with their cameras are like paparazzi,'' said docent Steve Johnston, who hands each guest a card promising that the aquarium will e-mail a picture of the shark to any visitor who agrees to switch off his flash gun.
The aquarium staff is proud of the milestone but not celebrating, perhaps so as not to jinx the proceedings and perhaps so as not to lord it over their competitors at Sea World, whose captive great white died after 16 days about 20 years ago.
Ezcurra said that the Monterey shark seemed to be thriving and that the wounds to her snout and tail fin that she suffered in the fisherman's net had healed back to a healthy, shark-like gray.
Hundreds of schoolchildren on field trips stood before the giant tank Friday and took in the proceedings with eyes that were at least as wide as the shark's. One of the kids, 7-year-old Amanda Clink of Hollister, said she was pretty sure that the shark liked her new digs.
"She doesn't look grumpy,'' Amanda said. "You can tell. She's swimming in a circle. She's enjoying herself.''
Gregory Moreno, 8, of Hollister, said a real great white shark was not like the fake one in "Jaws.''
"In the movie, they made the shark look bad,'' he said. "But a shark isn't being bad. A shark is just being a shark.''
After visiting the tank, shark fans stop by the new shark exhibit, where shark debunking is the main order of business and where a clip of "Jaws'' is shown over and over, every two minutes, so visitors can see how terribly unfair it is. After that, shark fans head for the gift store, which has moved all its shark merchandise to the front and where toy sharks sell for 95 cents, $2.95, $3.50, $4.95, $8.95, $9.95, $18.95, $24.95 and $69.95.
Some day, the aquarium knows it will have to say goodbye to the shark, especially if it keeps eating salmon and growing. Within months, the shark will become too big for her surroundings and might even decide to take a bite out of her tank mates, which might not be the best thing to show schoolchildren on field trips. Should she need to return to the sea, Ezcurra said, she will be trucked back to Southern California inside the same giant tank in which she was brought north.
The shark has made life better not just for the box office, but for the other fish. The tuna that share the Outer Bay tank used to be fed every other day. Now, they get fed every day, to make them less hungry and less likely to try to snatch away the salmon fillets intended for the shark. The tuna, however, must make do with handouts of squid, smelt and a gelatin-like vitamin goop. The shark gets the good stuff.
"It's not farm-bred salmon, either,'' Ezcurra said. "It's wild salmon from the fish market. Nothing but the best."