Can Great White Sharks Live In Captivity? (Explained)

The great white shark (Carcharodon carcharias) is one of the most iconic and feared ocean predators. As the largest predatory fish on Earth, great whites can reach lengths over 20 feet and weigh up to 4,500 pounds. Their size, speed, and reputed ferocity have made them legendary—and also challenging to keep in human care.

But can these mighty sharks survive and thrive in captivity?

The short answer is No. Most experts now agree displaying great whites in captivity is unrealistic and unjustifiable for the sharks’ well-being. Their biology and behavior make them fundamentally unsuited for life in an aquarium.

Why Captivity is Difficult for Great Whites

There are several major obstacles that have made maintaining great white sharks in aquariums nearly impossible:

Size: Great whites grow very large, very quickly. Even a juvenile shark can rapidly outgrow most aquarium enclosures. Adults require huge amounts of space to swim and move about.

Migratory Nature: In the wild, great whites are constantly on the move. They migrate across entire ocean basins in search of food and mating opportunities. Confinement in a tank severely restricts their mobility.

Specialization as Ambush Predators: Great whites are sprint swimmers that rely on sudden bursts of speed to capture seals, sea lions, and other prey. They do not handle confinement well. Aquariums cannot replicate the open water environments where they naturally hunt.

Difficulty With Capture and Transport: Safely catching great white sharks and transporting them to aquariums poses substantial problems. They are powerful swimmers that do not readily adapt to enclosure.

Unfamiliar Food: Aquariums typically feed smaller sharks frozen fish and squid. Great whites feed mostly on marine mammals with large blubber content. Providing similar food is virtually impossible.

Sensitive Nature: Great whites have highly sensitive skin and eyes. Exposure to bright lights, noise, and contact with enclosure walls may cause them severe distress.

These factors make successfully keeping a great white shark in captivity extraordinarily difficult. There have been several attempts, though most institutions have only succeeded for a very brief period of time.

History of Captivity Attempts

While great white sharks have proven nearly impossible to keep long-term, there have been some notable attempts:

Monterey Bay Aquarium

The Monterey Bay Aquarium in California has had the most success of any aquarium in keeping young white sharks in captivity for up to 198 days. Their first attempt was in 2004 with a 4.5-foot female juvenile. The shark did well for 198 days before being released. Their longest time with a great white was the 198 days with this first shark.

The Monterey Bay program has provided invaluable research insights. But even their specialized 1.2 million gallon enclosure with tuna, salmon, and seal decoys cannot meet the long-term needs of the animals.

Okinawa Churaumi Aquarium

In 2016, Japan’s Okinawa Churaumi Aquarium introduced an 11.5-foot male juvenile great white. The shark survived just three days before dying. Its death was likely caused by crashing into the walls of its small enclosure multiple times. This highlighted the sensitivity that great whites have to confinement and undersized enclosures.


The San Diego SeaWorld held a great white shark for 10 days before releasing it back into the ocean in 1994. The shark refused food in captivity and was under stress, which led to the decision to release it. Additionally, there was an incident in 1981 where a great white shark died after 16 days in captivity at SeaWorld. Since these events, there have been no publicized attempts by SeaWorld to house great white sharks.

Key Reasons Great White Sharks Struggle In Captivity

Examining why previous attempts to keep great whites have largely failed points to a few key challenges:

Insufficient Space

Even very large aquarium enclosures fail to give great white sharks adequate space. Adult sharks can require ocean-sized areas to roam in search of sporadic food sources. Migratory routes are also genetically ingrained. The smallest confines can cause panic, thrashing, and trauma.

Poor Water Quality

Public aquariums struggle to maintain water clarity, chemical makeup, salinity, and temperature needed to keep sensitive great whites healthy. Wild sharks migrate between waters of varying temperatures and chemical content. Captive systems cannot replicate these requirements.

Inadequate Nutrition

Great whites have unique nutritional needs centered around high-fat seal and marine mammal flesh. Facilities cannot feasibly obtain or store similar food sources in sufficient quantities. This can lead to starvation and compound health issues.

Behavioral Issues

Most great white sharks display immediate signs of aggression and behavioral distress when enclosed. Some even reject cohabitating with humans entirely. These reactions indicate that confinement triggers an acute stress response.

Difficult Transport

Catching sharks with minimal injury is challenging enough. Transporting them safely to artificial enclosures requires custom solutions. Many die from shock and trauma before reaching a facility. Those that survive require exceptional care from arrival onward.

What Would It Take To Keep Great Whites?

While largely impractical, specialized enclosures could give great white sharks longer lifespans in captivity:

Massive Enclosed Habitats

An oceanic cage spanning multiple acres would be required, ideally in natural seawater. Away from disruption, sharks could establish normal routines. Systems would still require exceptional water treatment to maintain wild-like conditions.

Life Stages Specific Design

Great whites have different needs as juveniles and adults. Nurseries for young sharks should have ample hiding spaces. Larger enclosures would need huge dimensions for adults to patrol and migrate within.

Significant Food Sources

Housing complexes would require connection to major harbors with access to seafood processors. Only vast quantities of fresh, high-fat fish and mammals could meet nutritional requirements. Complex distribution within pens would be essential.

Advances In Transport

Minimally stressful transportation would require the development of custom shark containers aboard specialized vessels. Crews would need to be thoroughly trained on species-appropriate handling. Chemical supplementation and sedation protocols may assist.

Intensive Health Monitoring

On-site veterinary staff with marine expertise would be vital. Real-time tracking of vital statistics, behavior, and maintenance of ideal water quality would all be paramount. Any health issues would require immediate care.


Routinely keeping great white sharks in captivity remains highly impractical. Only the most ambitious designs with enormous capacity and resources could potentially succeed.

Short research periods with juvenile sharks may still yield valuable insights, especially for conservation – but permanent display and confinement would likely remain out of reach.

The extreme adaptations of great whites to thrive in Earth’s oceans proves exceptionally difficult to replicate artificially. Their lives are intrinsically tied to the boundless freedom and challenges of the open sea.

While captivity offers a degree of security, it also robs them of the true existence they have mastered.

If people wish to continue being awed by these legendary predators, it must be within the wild habitats great white sharks have dominated for millions of years.

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