A 15-foot megamouth shark, the first of this mysterious species to survive after being brought to shore, was captured early Sunday in a commercial fisherman's net and hauled by its tail into Dana Point Harbor.
Marine biologists were amazed by the rare catch 7 miles off Dana Point, since only four other megamouths have been reported caught or found anywhere in the world. The others all were dead or dying when discovered, but the shark caught Sunday appeared to scientists to be healthy.
The megamouth, a creature with a large, bulbous snout that looks like a whale's, is one of the largest sharks in the world and is intriguing to scientists. Since the sharks thrive in deep waters, little is known about them, and they have never been studied or filmed except as corpses.
"It was a really incredible find. To see it swimming around like that for the first time . . . it's mind-blowing," said Robert Lavenberg, an ichthyologist and curator of fishes at the Los Angeles County Museum of Natural History who identified the shark as a megamouth. "It looks like a whale. It's quite a very odd shark."
Otto Elliott, a commercial fisherman and skipper of the Moonshiner, said he caught the megamouth in a gill net about 2:30 a.m. while fishing for swordfish and thrasher shark from his 38-foot boat. He hauled the net in to check his catch and found the enormous brown shark. He slipped a tail sling around it, then returned to Dana Point.
Marine experts at the Los Angeles County Museum of Natural History hope to film the shark underwater today in the harbor. But they worry that it may not survive in the shallow waters where it has been tied to the Moonshiner since early Sunday.
"This is like an alien coming out of the depths," said Dennis Kelly, a marine biologist at Orange Coast College. "It's one in a million. We didn't even know that they existed until they caught the first one in Hawaii in 1976.
"This is a fabulous opportunity for us, but the animal comes first. You hate to see something like this die."
Marine experts are worried that they might have to set the deep-sea animal free after videotaping it because there is no place to keep it.
"I've been calling my colleagues around the world trying to see if they can save this animal," Lavenberg said.
Sea World officials in San Diego declined to keep the shark, saying that they do not have an available tank large enough and that little is known about what it needs to survive.
"We wouldn't know how to keep it alive, what food to give it or what kind of lighting is needed," said Sea World spokesman Dan LeBlanc. "It would take years of research just to accommodate it."
Lavenberg was surprised at the Sea World officials' response because, he said, they are losing "an incredible chance to learn something about a deep-sea animal. If I were them, I'd be striving to keep it alive."
Elliott, who has been fishing commercially off Dana Point for 16 years, said he had to carefully cut his $5,000 drift net to keep the shark alive.
"We just set the net out in the evening and went to sleep. When we got up, I pulled it out, and he was there. You could tell right away he was different. He's big, and he has this round head," said Elliott.
On Sunday, the shark, which probably weighs about half a ton and has jaws several feet wide, was tied to the boat by a rope around its tail. It rested on the shallow harbor floor as curious people swarmed around the boat snapping pictures and asking the skipper questions.
Only its thrashing tail was visible above the surface, but occasionally Elliott and some friends hoisted its heavy, round head up so that people could see its jaws. Marine biologists said the shark is no threat to humans because it is a "filter feeder" with small teeth that mostly eats plankton.
Because of this, unlike most sharks, it does not need to be in constant motion.
Two Orange County Harbor Patrol deputies told Lavenberg that they saw a similar, strange-looking animal close to the surface about 2 miles off Dana Point about a week ago.
"That's amazing, because it's either the same animal real close to the surface or there's more than one in the area," Lavenberg said.
Megamouths have unusual, cavernous mouths lined with silvery tissues that might generate light to attract plankton in the dark ocean water of what is called the "deep scattering layer." One mystery shark experts hope to solve by studying the Dana Point creature is whether the tissues actually glow in the dark.
The sharks thrive in ocean waters so deep--at least 700 feet to several thousand feet--that few humans have seen them.
"It's normally not found anyplace where you find people," said Tad Smith, an aquatic biologist with the Steinhart Aquarium in San Francisco.
Since the first megamouth was caught off Hawaii in 1976, scientists have been at a loss to explain how such large creatures escaped detection for so long and why they are appearing now.
Scientists are puzzled that the shark caught Sunday was swimming in less than 100 feet of water when trapped in the net.
"If it's coming to the surface, is it dying? Is it acclimated to those waters? Is it feeding? We just don't know," Lavenberg said. "We don't even know how it swims with that big head. Is it whalelike or porpoiselike in its swimming? The cartilage of the snout is formed like a big, bulbous head instead of pointed like a typical shark, so it obviously is not a speed demon. It probably won't set any speed records."
The shark caught off Hawaii was the only other megamouth caught alive, but it died within hours of swallowing a Navy anchor, before biologists could see it alive.
The second catch--off Catalina Island in 1984--is on display at the Los Angeles County Museum of Natural History. It was caught alive but had died by the time the boat returned to port.
Two others have washed ashore, one south of Perth, Australia, that was alive but died within hours, and one decomposed carcass found in Japan. All four were about the same size, around 14 1/2 feet long, and all were males, which also piques the curiousity of marine mammal experts.
Ron Losey, one of four people aboard Elliott's boat when the shark was caught in the net, said he was so shocked by the discovery that "my heart stopped beating."
"I'm a truck driver, and I've seen everything there is to be seen--until last night," he said. Pointing at the shark's flapping tail, he added, "You're looking at a dinosaur."
The Los Angeles County Museum of Natural History offered Elliott $1,000 to watch the megamouth overnight and keep it tied to his boat so that marine experts could film it this morning.
"I just hope it stays alive. I'll take $1,000 for four hours of fishing any day," Elliott said.
Elliott, tired after a sleepless night, was growing impatient with the constant parade of people by mid-afternoon Sunday. He teased them as he chugged beers on the wharf, telling one group that he caught the shark with a rod and reel.
One breathless, excited woman rushed up to his boat and yelled, "Did you catch anything?"
Elliott shook his head, poker-faced.
"Just a couple little sharks," he said. "Nothing to brag about."
Times staff writer Lily Eng contributed to this report.