Long Beach aquarium has only captive tiger shark on West Coast

By Patrick Cowles
Daily Titan Assistant News Editor

Clouds dot the partly clear sky, a beautiful day at the beach, if it weren’t for the heat and humidity. As I cruise down Ocean Boulevard in Downtown Long Beach with the windows down and volume up, I notice posters promoting a rare visitor to this town littering the street lights.

In late February, Aquarium of the Pacific, just off Pine Street, received a young female tiger shark from Taiwan.
Tiger sharks are quite rare in captivity, and the Aquarium’s Shark Lagoon exhibition now houses the only one on the West Coast.

Aquarium staff has been excited for the chance to work with this species.

“They are challenging to handle in captivity,” said Sandy Trautwein, Aquarium of the Pacific curator of fish. “They are an open ocean shark.”

Tiger sharks, also referred to as leopard sharks (galeocerdo cuvier), tend to inhabit a variety of ocean climates. They are known to reside in coastal waters, usually in tropical or sub-tropical temperate zones.

However, they have been observed as open ocean sharks as well, capable of covering great distances.

Tiger sharks can grow from 10 to 20 feet in length, weighing in between 850 and 2,000 pounds. True to their name, these sharks sport dark “tiger” stripes on their backs. Their dorsal areas range from dark blue-greens to grays and blacks, with off-white bellies.

Known as the “wastebasket of the sea,” tiger sharks have a wide open diet, ingesting just about anything. They have even been known to eat non-digestible items such as plastic bottles and license plates that find their way into the ocean’s currents. Their common diet in the wild consists of a variety of fish, crustaceans, and sea birds brave enough to skim the waters.

Due to their dietary voracity, tiger sharks are known to beach dwellers as man-eaters.

However, shark attacks are incredibly rare. According to the International Shark Attack File, 96 attacks have been reported in California since 1926, eight of which have been fatal.

Over 70 percent of these attacks were perpetrated by white sharks, only 1 percent have been reported as leopard sharks, with around 20 percent unknown.

“We aim to inspire visitors to learn the truth about these animals … while we further scientific information about their behavior,” said Perry Hampton, Aquarium of the Pacific animal husbandry director. That’s why it is important for people by the sea to respect the habitats humans impose upon.

The incredible journey for this tiger shark began in a net off the coast of Taiwan, when fishermen caught the mother of the unborn tiger shark.

The mother gave birth to a school of pups shortly after being captured.

A Taiwanese collector of fish somehow received the tiger shark and contacted the Aquarium of the Pacific, said Marilyn Padilla, media relations for the Aquarium of the Pacific.

From there, the collector guaranteed to keep the shark safe until proper transportation accommodations could be scheduled.

Once a container was procured, the tiger shark flew over the Pacific Ocean, arriving at LAX Airport. The Aquarium of the

Pacific then picked up the container and safely transported the tiger shark to her new temporary residence.

Since she will eventually grow too large for the exhibit, Trautwein explained she cannot stay in Long Beach forever. The Aquarium of the Pacific is not sure when she will be “too” big. “There is no exact science to it,” said Trautwein. The Aquarium of the Pacific has already begun to contact other aquariums that may be able to house her in adulthood.

The Aquarium of the Pacific opened Shark Lagoon back in 2002. The exhibit contains a large display tank for larger sharks, with “touching” pools above for smaller sharks.

Anyone with a fear of sharks is encouraged to visit the exhibit and overcome their fears.

Although the tiger shark arrived at the Aquarium in late February, she has only been on display for the public since June.

The first few months were spent acclimating the shark to her new habitat and neighbors. The Aquarium has even partitioned off part of Shark Lagoon just for her.

While on display, she shares a 90,000 gallon tank with a sand tiger shark, black and white tipped reef sharks, a zebra shark, and a few others.

The Aquarium staff has not named the tiger shark, it is not something they do, said Trautwein.

The most surprising difficulty Aquarium staff has had is feeding. Although feeding is good now, joked Trautwein, it was not always so.

The Aquarium has tried just about everything a carnivore of the sea might eat, including chicken and steak.

On some days she wouldn’t eat, or would eat one specific item. On other days she would feast upon everything they fed her. She now enjoys a variety of fish and shrimp.

The Aquarium has different feeding stations where staff can feed each shark individually to avoid competition; however, she has gotten along with the other sharks.

Since she is under a year old, the Aquarium feeds her throughout the day to ensure her growth. Visitors may also feed a shark themselves during set feeding times.

Just under five feet in length now, she was around three feet when the Aquarium received her, which is a good sign.

Growth is indicative of health and also success in handling, to which Aquarium staff is proud to see.

Now weighing around 45 pounds, she came to the Aquarium around 28 pounds.

“She’s doing great. We’ve gotten her to eat, and she is growing and that’s the best sign that she’s doing well,” said Trautwein.

About Patrick Cowles