Who Knew Trixie?

Do you know about Trixie the whale shark? I wouldn’t expect you to; her story came and went. Trixie had been held in captivity (and on display) at the Georgia Aquarium in Atlanta since 2006. She died there on November 27, 2020, and the aquarium’s concise announcement of her death and its subsequent cursory media coverage left me wanting to know more about her. Whale sharks are the largest fishes in the ocean, and their long lives are, in many ways, a mystery to our terrestrial minds and contemporary research tools. That one of them lived in close proximity to humans for fifteen years has to mean something, but preliminary digging on the internet yielded very little beyond that statement and the rote press. There must be more to Trixie’s story.

On the day that Trixie died, spokespeople for the Georgia Aquarium posted a statement, accompanied by a picture of a whale shark (presumably Trixie), on both Instagram and Facebook.1 “She was having difficulty navigating the habitat,” they wrote, “and then her health rapidly declined.” “Exhaustive veterinary and animal care efforts” were not enough to save her. The aquarium made clear that they were heartbroken by the loss of this animal, one of the first of several whale sharks the aquarium has kept over the years, and that they were “proud to have been stewards of her care.” They closed with a direct address to the shark: “We will miss you, Trixie.” 

Why, though? What was it about Trixie that made her death so painful to those who cared for her? Did she have a personality? Did she bond with her caregivers? How did she live, and what lessons did her life teach? A flurry of media outlets picked up the colorful (if sad) story, but refrained from asking those types of questions, instead opting to hover around the same generic approach. CNN reiterated the aquarium’s press release, layering in a few additional facts about whale sharks: they generally range in length from eighteen to thirty-two feet, but can grow to more than sixty feet long.2 They face numerous threats, including entanglement in fishing nets, ingesting pollutants and plastics, and other forms of human-generated interference. USA Today took a similar approach, also noting that Trixie was flown in from Taiwan in 2006.3

Trixie’s passing was not the first time a whale shark’s death at the Georgia Aquarium made the news. In 2007, the New York Times reported the euthanization of Norton, a young whale shark whose health declined over the course of several months, and who, near the end, had to be force-fed through a PVC pipe.4 The results of a necropsy indicated a hole in the lining of his stomach that likely became infected. Five months earlier, another whale shark, Ralph, died at the aquarium (Trixie, along with Ralph, Norton, and a fourth shark- Alice- were named after the four principle characters in the 1950s sitcom, The Honeymooners).5 Ralph and Norton were replaced by two new whale sharks, imported from Taiwan, named Taroko and Yushan.

The first recorded attempt to hold a captive whale shark occurred at the Mito Aquarium in Japan, in 1934, where a shark was kept for 122 days in a net enclosure constructed within a bay.6 Beginning in the 1980s and 1990s, more aquariums, mostly in Asia, tried to maintain the massive fishes as parts of their exhibits. Though details are limited, it appears most of these facilities were unsuccessful at keeping the animals alive for more than a year. 

According to their website, the Okinawa Churaumi Aquarium in Okinawa, Japan, holds the record for long-term rearing of a captive whale shark.7 Jinto, a male, has lived at the aquarium since 1995. The aquarium touts the research benefits of holding captive whale sharks, indicating the particular value that captivity holds for understanding whale shark reproduction. In fact, the aquarium claims it is working towards the first ever whale shark captive breeding program.8 Whale sharks are also kept at the Osaka Aquarium in Osaka, Japan.9 

In a 2010 blog interview, the Georgia Aquarium’s then-Chief Science Officer, Dr. Bruce Carlson, addressed some of the controversies surrounding the whale sharks held at the Georgia Aquarium.10 Notably, Carlson aimed to dispel potential critiques of the aquarium’s handling of the sharks, particularly in light of Norton and Ralph’s deaths. “Of course they are better off!” he maintained, advocating for captivity and pointing out that all of the whale sharks at the Georgia Aquarium had been caught in Taiwan and rescued before being sold to a fish market. Taiwan has, however, since banned the sale and killing of whale sharks.11

None of this, though, really answers the question of what Trixie was like, and why she will be missed. So, I figured I would reach out to the Georgia Aquarium directly. I started by sending a reasonably earnest message through their website’s general contact form, saying that I was a graduate student in Animal Studies curious to learn more about whale sharks in captivity, and about Trixie’s story. I have not yet received a response.

Next, I called the aquarium and spoke to an operator named Tracy. As I mentioned the purpose of my call, Tracy let out a subtle but audible sigh. Impatient, Tracy asked for my number and seemed in a rush to hang up. I have yet to hear from anyone. A couple days later, I called again and got through to the Media Relations office and the voicemail box of Hannah Hardwick, the aquarium’s Public Relations Coordinator. I left my name, number, and email, and have not received a call back.

I deduced the likely email format used by employees at the Georgia Aquarium, and sent Hannah a direct email reiterating the message I originally sent through the aquarium’s contact form. The email didn’t bounce back, but I haven’t received a reply. I followed up, and still no response. Scouring LinkedIn, I found a person named Kelly Link, who lists herself as the Associate Curator of Sharks at the aquarium. I sent her the same email I sent to Hannah. No reply.

I have decided to put my outreach on hold while I further consider the meaning of Trixie’s story, and my role in exploring it. While I can’t be certain, something in my gut tells me that my message has, indeed, been received by at least one person, perhaps more, and is being consciously ignored. Why, though, is unclear. Perhaps the badge of a Master’s Student in Animal Studies raises a red flag for the aquarium and its overall PR strategy, and they’re being cautious about discussing potentially controversial matters with an unvetted writer. Of course, a less dramatic reason for the unresponsiveness could simply be that the aquarium receives too many media inquiries to warrant paying any attention to a random graduate student. While I do not wish to ignore the potentially “fishy” scenario, I do not yet have enough evidence to pass legitimate judgment in any direction regarding the aquarium’s care for Trixie, and their handling of her death. 

There are few things we can know for sure. In 2006, Trixie the whale shark was loaded onto a specially outfitted B747 freighter aircraft in Taiwan and flown more than 8,000 miles to Atlanta.10 She lived for fifteen years at the aquarium and died in the fall of 2020. The more that I think about it, though, something tells me that even if a representative from the aquarium were to graciously reach out to me and expound upon their experiences with Trixie, that still might satisfy what I’m looking for.

Trixie spent well over a decade at the Georgia Aquarium, but she was already around fifteen feet long when she arrived.12 Baby whale sharks measure approximately twenty inches, and while little is known about the full extent of whale shark longevity, research into the correlation between their size and age indicates it is reasonable to estimate that she had at least several years of life behind her- perhaps a decade, or even more- when she was brought to live in a giant tank at an aquarium in a landlocked city in a country far from the places she knew.13, 14 Years of life, entirely unseen and forever unknown. Perhaps the question shouldn’t be, “Who knew Trixie,” but rather, “What did Trixie know?”

Citations

1. Georgia Aquarium. Announcement of Trixie the whale shark’s death. Facebook, November 27, 2020, https://www.facebook.com/GeorgiaAquarium/posts/we-are-saddened-to-say-our-largest-female-whale-shark-trixie-passed-away-today-n/10158426162583124/. Accessed March 24, 2021.

2. Williams, David. “Trixie the whale shark dies at the Georgia Aquarium.” CNN, https://www.cnn.com/2020/11/28/us/georgia-aquarium-whale-shark-death-scn-trnd/index.html. Accessed March 24, 2021. 

3. Associated Press. “’We will miss you, Trixie’: Georgia Aquarium’s largest female whale shark dies.” USA Today, https://www.usatoday.com/story/news/nation/2020/11/28/trixie-georgia-aquariums-largest-female-whale-shark-dies-dies/6453518002/

4. Goodman, Brenda. “Georgia Aquarium Mourns Another of Its Whale Sharks.” The New York Times, https://www.nytimes.com/2007/06/14/us/14shark.html?smid=url-share. Accessed March 24, 2021. 

5. Odum, Charles. “Necropsy held Friday for Georgia Aquariums whale shark.” Statesboro Herald, https://www.statesboroherald.com/local/necropsy-held-friday-for-georgia-aquariums-whale-shark/. Accessed March 24, 2021. 

6. Mollet, Henry F. “Whale Shark Rhincodon typus Smith, 1828 in Captivity.” Elasmollet, http://elasmollet.org/Rt/Rt_captive.html. Accessed March 24, 2021. 

7. “World Record!! Jinta, Okinawa Churaumi Aquarium’s whale shark, holds the world record for long-term rearing!.” Okinawa Churaumi Aquarium. https://churaumi.okinawa/en/topics/1552874984/#:~:text=World%20Record!!-,Jinta%2C%20Okinawa%20Churaumi%20Aquarium%27s%20whale%20shark%2C%20holds%20the%20world,record%20for%20long%2Dterm%20rearing!&text=Jinta%20was%20brought%20to%20the,he%20has%20reached%208.7%20meters. Accessed March 24, 2021.

8. “Striving for captive breeding of whale sharks.” Okinawa Churaumi Aquarium. https://churaumi.okinawa/en/research/prize/. Accessed March 24, 2021. 

9. “About KAIYUKAN.” Osaka Aquarium Kaiyukan. https://www.kaiyukan.com/language/eng/about.html. Accessed March 24, 2021. 

10. Shiffman, David. “Ethical Debate: Captive whale sharks.” Southern Fried Science. https://www.southernfriedscience.com/ethical-debate-captive-whale-sharks/. Accessed March 24, 2021. 

11. Staff Writer. “COA bans fishing for whale sharks.” Taipei Times. https://www.taipeitimes.com/News/taiwan/archives/2007/05/27/2003362648. Accessed March 24, 2021. 

12. Tharpe, Jim. “Egging on the whale sharks.” Chicago Tribune. https://www.chicagotribune.com/news/ct-xpm-2006-06-09-0606090107-story.html. Accessed March 24, 2021. 

13. “Whale Shark.” Oceana.org. https://oceana.org/marine-life/sharks-rays/whale-shark#:~:text=As%20opposed%20to%20the%20other,20%20inches%2F45%20cm. Accessed March 24, 2021. 

14. Perry Cameron T., Figueiredo Joana, Vaudo Jeremy J., Hancock James, Rees Richard, Shivji Mahmood (2018) Comparing length-measurement methods and estimating growth parameters of free-swimming whale sharks (Rhincodon typus) near the South Ari Atoll, Maldives. Marine and Freshwater Research 69, 1487-1495.

(Cover Photo by Christian Garcia on Unsplash)

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