The Whale Shark – The Gentle Giant Of The Seas

Do not let the name “whale” fool you, as the whale shark is not actually a whale, but it is the biggest fish and the biggest shark that we can presently find in our blue oceans. This giant lives its life mainly alone, roaming the oceans for food, migrating extremely large distances to feed itself.

As the plankton is their main food supply, large numbers of whale sharks have been found in locations where this food was abundant, making them an interesting tourist attraction. They enjoy the warm and tropical temperate seas, around the Ecuador belt, from 30 degrees N to 35 degrees S. Exceptions have been recorded in the Mediterranean seas.

The reason why these sharks have been named whales is the enormous size of their bodies. An average length of this giant is around 10 m (32 ft) and weight around 9.000 kg (20.000 lbs). The largest specimen ever recorded was captured in 1947 near Karachi, Pakistan and was 12.65 m long (41,50 ft) and weighed over 21.500 kg ( 47.000 lbs). Of course, there are some fishermen’s stories of whale sharks with lengths over 18 m (59 ft) and weight over 45.500 kg (100.000 lbs), but there are no scientific records to back them up.

Their mouth is proportional to their size. It can be as wide as 1.5 m (4.9 ft), and it is positioned in front of their head, unlike other species of sharks that have the mouth underside of their head. Their big head is wide and flat, with a rounded snout. They have 2 dorsal fins (on their back) and 2 pectoral fins (on their side). Similar to other sharks, their top tail fin is larger than the

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lower fin. Random stripes and dots of a light-yellow color cover their entire body, which has a dark gray skin.

Like most other sharks, the male is larger in size than the female, and they reach sexually maturity at around 30 years old. They can live up to 100-150 years old.

The whale sharks have a unique characteristic, similar to our fingerprints, that allows individual sharks to be identified. Located on their side, behind their head and above the front side fins, they have a unique pattern of spots. This has helped WWF organizations to tag, using photographs, over 458 whale sharks in the waters around the Philippines.

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The Whale Sharks – A Closer Look at Their Feeding Habits

Although they have an impressive size, the whale sharks feed on plankton and other tiny species. They are what they call filter feeders, together with 2 more shark species, the basking shark and the mega-mouth shark.

Their mouth contains from 300 to 350 rows of very small teeth and 10 filter pads

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that they use in the filtering process of their food. The many rows of teeth do not really play any important part in the feeding process.

You may wonder what filter feeding is. Well, this can occur in two ways:

  • First is the ram filtering, where the shark basically opens his mouth wide and swims around, swallowing everything in its path,
  • The second one is the suction, which is when the sharks sucks the water in by opening and closing its wide mouth.

Both methods involve the intake of massive amounts of water that after filtration is being expelled thru the side gills, 5 rows of gill slits on each side. The hourly amount of filtered water is around 6.000 liters (1.500 gallons). The pads will separate the water from the food. They use the cross-flow filtration, which means the water does not pass through the pads to be filtered, but rather parallel with the pad, allowing the denser food particles to travel towards the back of the throat. This system helps preserve the surface of the pads from getting damaged in the process.

A behavior similar to coughing has been noticed during or after the filter feeding, which is presumed to be a method of clearing and cleaning the filter pads from build-up.

Since they have small eyes, which are located behind the mouth, the nostrils on either side of the upper jaw, on the edge of the terminal mouth, will help them sense the amount of food that is around them, making them turn their body according to the movement of the plankton patch.

The whale sharks’ diet includes: macro-algae, plankton, krill, red crab larvae and some nektonic life-like vertebrates or small squids. They also enjoy a nice meal of caviar. Different species of fish, like the dog snapper or cubera, lay their eggs in the ocean waters, creating clouds of fish eggs, which the whale shark will swim through, eating everything in their way.

The whale shark is not a danger to humans, as it does not see us as food. In fact, they are known to allow humans to ride along, letting them hang on to their dorsal fins.

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Basic Facts Everybody Should Know about the Whale Shark

The whale shark is an open sea creature that prefers the warm waters, with surface temperatures around 20-30 degrees Celsius. Commonly, they can be seen close inshore, even in lagoons and coral atolls.

Habitat

Whale sharks are seasonal migratory creatures, roaming the oceans according to the timing and location of the pulses and breeding behavior of certain sea fish. In March and April, they can be found west of Australia in the Ningaloo Reef area, where, during full moon, the spawning of corals will help create a massive population of zoo plankton.

Threats

These gentle giants swim close to shore, becoming an attraction to the tourist industry. It is very important how the local tourist programs are carried out. If the program is well thought out, it will sustain the local communities, but, there are examples where the massive tourist programs are interfering with the feeding process of the whale sharks, disturbing their migrations.

Moreover, the whale shark meat is very valuable on some Asian markets. Even if the whale shark is not an endangered species, it is still vulnerable, as the demand for shark fin soup increases. Each year, around 100 sharks are fished in Taiwan’s waters for consumption, fetching a high price and creating an increasing demand for their meat. In small fishing communities, they will eat the flesh and utilize the oil to waterproof their fishing boats or to manufacture shoe polish,

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and as a base ingredient for treatment of skin diseases.

Due to their filter feeding, which occurs mainly on the surface and lasts for several hours at a time, they can get injured by boat hulls. Numerous whale sharks have been found with wounds on their back and sometimes even with back fins missing, especially in the Gulf of Mexico, around Isla Mujeres.

Conservation

The whale shark is protected by the Australian Commonwealth waters, the Maldives, Philippines, India, Thailand, Malaysia, Honduras, Mexico, US Atlantic waters and Belize. Although putting the whale shark on the endangered species list has failed, it has been agreed worldwide that exports and imports be monitored. Fishing states must demonstrate that they are implementing a program to sustain and manage the whale shark population.

Due to their massive size and specialized diet, few individuals are kept in captivity. Japan has the most aquarium whale sharks, but they can also be seen in China, Taiwan and USA.

Because of their size, late maturation, slow growth and longevity, whale sharks might be overexploited in the present day, pushing this gentle giant to extinction, especially since we have little precise data about their abundance and distribution, as well as the carrying capacity of the fishing industry.

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