TAMPA — Eight months without an appetite is a long time for a shark.
So on Friday morning, resting in an anesthetic-laced tub of water, White Tip No. 3 had his first surgery.
Florida Aquarium veterinarians called the procedure a success even though they didn't find what they were looking for — a disc-shaped object that showed up on an MRI of the shark's throat three weeks ago.
They feared it was that object, and the irritation and infection it caused, that was making it tough for the 4-foot, 30-pound shark to eat. Aquarium vets have been feeding it through a tube since June.
Dr. Genny Dumonceaux likened the shark's painful eating to swallowing with an extreme case of strep throat.
During the surgery, Dumonceaux stuck her hand down No. 3's throat and felt around for a possible chunk of plastic a bit larger than a quarter, according to what showed up on the MRI.
After almost 40 minutes, she didn't find it and the shark was brought out of its anesthetic bath — laughing gas through gills.
Dumonceaux said she was happy with the way things went.
She said she was able to remove a significant amount of scar tissue from the shark's throat, which would make tube-feeding easier.
They stuck a camera down the shark's throat, too, to get a better idea of the damage.
Dumonceaux said she'd perform the same procedure again soon. "We'll give him a couple of weeks to recover," she said.
Perhaps the object has already dislodged and passed through the shark during digestion, she said. Or maybe it's still in there.
It's important to get the 5-year-old shark on the road to recovery, she said.
"This shark, while not rare, is an important animal for us," Dumonceaux said. "All our sharks are ambassadors for the wild population."
When No. 3 started to wake up, he was hoisted back into an adjacent recovery tank where aquarium husbandry supervisor Eric Hovland was waiting in a wet suit.
Hovland, the aquarium's self-proclaimed "resident shark guy," guided No. 3 through the water as he gained consciousness. At first the shark swam lazily, bumping the wall and staying close to the surface, but he soon sped up.
Hovland said sharks like No. 3 can fetch thousands of dollars, depending on their age. He's one of about a dozen sharks similar at the aquarium.
Right now he's not the biggest or the fastest of the bunch, but Hovland said his strength is obvious.
"It's his nature to be a fighter," Hovland said. "To be that strong after all of this shows his perseverance."