The tiger shark (Galeocerdo cuvier) is one of the most voracious predators in the sea.
If you wanted one of nature’s ultimate hunters in your home, would it be possible to have a tiger shark aquarium?
We will see that tiger sharks are far too large for even the biggest home aquariums and would not survive in them.
We’ll also discover that tiger sharks need more space to thrive than even huge public aquariums can provide.
Tiger sharks that have been captured have a very high mortality rate, so we will consider if they should be kept in aquariums at all, irrespective of the size.
Finally, we will have a look at some sharks that can be more responsibly kept in captivity, even if they still need something far more significant than your average fish tank.
Can Tiger Sharks Live In Captivity in an Aquarium?
Tiger sharks do not make a great aquarium pet. In fact, it would be fair to say it is impossible to keep a tiger shark in a huge home aquarium.
You simply couldn’t build one large enough for even a baby tiger shark to survive in for very long.
Not only that, but the cost of the tank and the required water filtration and circulation equipment would be astronomical.
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Even tiger sharks living in vast public facilities have a poor survival record overall, with only a few exceptions. Let’s consider why.
Tiger sharks (Galeocerdo cuvier) are massive requiem sharks found near the coast worldwide in temperate and tropical waters.
They have been recorded in scientific papers as growing as large as 7.4 m (24 ft 3 in) long (although a maximum of 5.5 m (18 ft 1 in) is more common).
This can be one giant shark. In fact, the tiger shark is, by average size, the third-largest fish in the ocean, coming in behind the biggest, the whale shark (Rhincodon typus), the basking shark (Cetorhinus maximus) at number two, and the great white shark (Carcharodon carcharias).
But what about baby tiger sharks? Couldn’t they be kept in aquariums?
While they are smaller, even a newly born tiger shark pup measures about 76 cm (30 in) long, and rest assured, they grow quickly! So for sure, they’re not going to fit in your home aquarium.
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So, one of the biggest reasons that tiger sharks in captivity are tough to keep alive is how much space they need.
Not only is the shark itself big, but the shark needs a lot of room to swim around.
Remember that most sharks need to keep swimming to breathe, and requiem sharks are no exception.
Even if we were to discount cruelty completely, it’s not enough to have an aquarium that the requiem sharks fit into. It needs to be able to swim freely.
Tiger sharks are solitary and swim about 95 kilometers (60 miles) daily. While they tend to swim relatively slowly, tiger sharks can put on huge bursts of speed when they’re hunting prey.
The tiger shark’s diet in nature is one of the most varied of any shark species. They will eat dolphins, dugongs, turtles, seals, sea lions, sea birds, crustaceans, rays, bony fish, and smaller sharks.
This shark species is often referred to as the ocean’s garbage cans thanks to their habit of feeding on just about anything in their habitat.
Many tiger sharks have famously been found with car license plates in their stomachs after the animal has tried to eat something to find out if it was tasty.
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Tiger sharks are also relatively aggressive. This giant requiem shark is responsible for the second-highest number of unprovoked attacks on humans coming in behind only the famous great white shark.
This all means that providing a suitable habitat for a tiger shark to live in is very difficult.
It doesn’t only need to be large enough for the shark to swim and breathe.
It needs to be big enough that the shark can move without feeling unduly stressed from captivity.
The tiger shark’s diet also needs to be sufficiently varied with natural foods to keep it healthy (no license plates!).
Other factors that might affect the shark’s well-being include keeping the aquarium’s water sufficiently clean, oxygenated, and at the correct temperature.
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All of this requires costly and complex equipment.
If a tiger shark gets stressed from a poor diet, water conditions, or being in a small space may get sick.
A stressed shark is likely to get aggressive, which may cause it to damage itself in high-speed collisions with the sides of the aquarium or attack any tank mates.
How Big Does a Tiger Shark Aquarium Need To Be?
So, how big of a tank does a tiger shark need? Simply put, a huge one! May we suggest the ocean?
An aquarium tiger shark will suffer to some degree from being held in closed quarters, no matter how large they are.
Many young tiger sharks have been kept in large public aquariums over the years before being released into the wild when they outgrew the facility.
Sadly others have died in captivity, primarily due to being in too small an aquarium.
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One of the most famous captive tiger sharks is in the Georgia Aquarium, where the “SHARKS! Predators of the Deep” exhibit holds 4,500 cubic meters (1.2 million gallons) of water and is 6 meters (20 feet) deep.
So, if you’re planning a tiger shark tank, you need to be thinking really big.
Can a Sand Tiger Shark Live in an Aquarium?
The sand tiger shark (Carcharias taurus) shares a similar name to a tiger shark, but it is quite a different beast.
These sharks are held in many public aquariums and are kept quite successfully relative to tiger sharks.
The sand tiger shark reaches a maximum of 3.2 m (10.5 ft) in length in the wild, so it’s a fair bit smaller than a tiger shark.
Sand tiger sharks also tend to have a far more docile nature than tiger sharks (it has no confirmed human fatalities), making them more relaxed aquarium inhabitants.
The sand tiger sharks also generally inhabit cooler waters than tiger thanks which, depending on the location, could make it more economically viable to keep them compared to the costs of heating large volumes of water for a tiger shark’s requirements.
Keeping sand tiger sharks in aquariums can still be problematic. In common with several species of captive sharks, many sand tigers end up with spinal deformities.
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Scientists believe that this is due to the unnatural swimming patterns that the aquariums create.
So, even a shark that seems to survive is still affected dramatically by being kept in an aquarium.
Is There a Tiger Shark in an Aquarium?
Yes, there are a few tiger sharks in public aquariums around the world, although due to how hard they are to keep successfully, there are very few relative to a large number of facilities.
Georgia Aquarium, USA
As we already mentioned, at the time of writing, the Georgia Aquarium has a tiger shark which it keeps in its massive exhibit with great hammerhead sharks, silvertip sharks, and sand tiger sharks.
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The “SHARKS! Predators of the Deep” exhibit opened in 2020, and it is understood that the aquarium obtained the young tiger shark specifically for the new tank.
You can check on its well-being via the live webcam on the aquarium’s website.
Maui Ocean Center, Hawaii
The Maui Ocean Center in Hawaii occasionally exhibits juvenile tiger sharks in their “Open Ocean” exhibit.
For the animal’s health and Hawaiian’s cultural respect for sharks, this aquarium uses its ocean side location to cycle its animals regularly back to the ocean responsibly.
The aquarium says, “we cannot guarantee the presence of any specific animal.”
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Okinawa Churaumi Aquarium, Japan
The Okinawa Churaumi Aquarium in Japan has exhibited several different tiger sharks.
In March 2017, it hosted the first captive birth of a tiger shark from a 3.2 meter (10.5 foot) pregnant female brought to the aquarium.
She was reported as giving birth to 30 pups, although only one is known to have lived to any age.
The surviving shark pup was kept in the Shark Research Lab for two years before being displayed in 2019.
The tiger shark was 80cm (2.5 feet) long at birth and had grown to 2 meters (6.5 feet) when it went on display.
Acuario de Veracruz, Mexico
The Mexican Acuario de Veracruz has housed several tiger sharks for periods as long as seven years.
However, all the sharks have been housed temporarily and eventually are released, having been tagged with satellite trackers so marine biologists can study their movements.
Historical Captive Tiger Sharks
The number of locations that currently have live tiger sharks is far outweighed by those which used to hold them and appear to have given up.
Most of the hundreds of public aquariums worldwide have never attempted to keep a tiger shark.
The size of the aquarium and facilities needed, combined with the difficulties and cost of transporting the sharks, make it a complicated project to undertake.
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Notable public aquariums that used to house tiger sharks feature stories demonstrating how hard these sharks are to keep.
Several tiger sharks spent only a couple of years in the aquariums before being released due to outgrowing their tanks. Many others sadly perished.
Aquarium of the Pacific, Long Beach, USA
The aquarium in Long Beach has had several tiger sharks over the years.
A juvenile tiger shark was housed in the aquarium in 2009, having been removed from a pregnant female that an ocean fisherman in Taiwan captured.
Some reports suggest that this shark was released to the sea having outgrown its habitat.
Another tiger shark is mentioned at the Long Beach aquarium in a news story from 2020.
However, the fate of this shark is unknown. In 2022 the aquarium’s website makes no mention of them housing tigers.
SeaWorld Gold Coast, Australia
This Australian aquarium housed a tiger shark for over a year in the 80s.
During an especially warm summer, the aquarium had to release the tiger into the ocean as they couldn’t keep the water in its habitat cool enough for the shark to survive.
Do Tiger Sharks Belong in an Aquarium?
Whether tiger shark captivity is appropriate is one covering the animal’s health, practicality, economics, and morality.
Even if you can overcome the enormous expense required to create a suitable habitat, it is impossible to keep any animal in captivity without it suffering to some degree.
How much sentient feeling sharks have is a subject of much debate amongst scientists.
However, what isn’t disputed is that keeping large sharks in captivity can be highly detrimental to their physical health and the mortality rate is very high.
Researchers have said that “In most cases, we could say that all these captive sharks were merely in the process of dying, with some taking longer than others.”
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The sharks are often injured during their capture and transport and then don’t regain their health in their aquariums.
Further injuries or illnesses can occur from poor nutrition, lack of space, stress, or interaction with their tank mates.
There are arguments that keeping sharks in aquariums for the public to see promotes their study and conservation.
In an ideal world, all studies on sharks would be done in the wild.
However, it is understandable that funds need to be generated, which may need to come through direct public interaction.
However, animals like the tiger shark are so difficult to keep successfully that, on balance, it seems to this author that they do not belong in a tiger shark aquarium and should be studied exclusively in their natural environment.
Which Sharks Can Be Kept in an Aquarium?
Sharks that are suitable to be kept in a tank are those which grow considerably smaller than the tiger and do not swim as actively.
They are also sharks that are far less aggressive and have less specific feeding requirements.
Sharks have been kept in public facilities since the 1860s, albeit with varying levels of success.
As aquarium systems and husbandry techniques have advanced, it has even become possible for hobby aquarists to keep certain sharks successfully in large home tanks.
Anyone considering keeping a shark in an aquarium should study its requirements carefully before taking on the animal.
Recommended sharks for large home fish tanks include:
Bamboo Shark Chiloscyllium spp.
Coral Catshark Atelomycterus marmoratus
Horn Shark Heterodontus francisci
Leopard Shark Triakis semifasciatus
Port Jackson Shark Heterodontus portusjacksoni
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The best shark species for public facilities include:
Blacktip Shark Carcharhinus limbatus
Nurse Shark Ginglymostoma cirratum
Sandbar Sharks Carcharhinus plumbeus
Sand Tiger Shark Carcharias taurus
Whitetip Reef Sharks Triaenodon obesus
A tiger shark aquarium needs to be huge to give the animal a chance for survival.
Many attempts have been made to keep larger sharks in captivity. However, almost none have been successful in the long term.
Only a tiny number of public aquariums keep tiger sharks presently, clearly demonstrating just how difficult it is.
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So what do you think? Do you believe a shark species like the tiger should even be kept in substantial public aquariums?
Do you think it helps their conservation? Let us know in the comments what your opinion is.
British-born Dan has been a scuba instructor and guide in Egypt's Red Sea since 2010.
Dan loves inspiring safe, fun, and environmentally responsible diving and particularly enjoys the opportunity to dive with sharks or investigate local shipwrecks.
When not spending time underwater, Dan can usually be found biking and hiking in Sharm's desert surroundings.