The incredible Whale Shark is the biggest fish in the ocean, and it is such a beautiful, gentle creature.
It has to be said that whale sharks probably don’t have Einstein’s IQ since they have the smallest brain in the ocean for their size, but give them a break… they help keep plankton and krill under control, which is necessary for our oceans and for life on earth. I just returned from the Yucatan peninsula where possibly the largest aggregation of whale sharks occurs, and it was a spectacular trip. Here are some Whale Shark Facts along with the photographs I took:
1. The largest fish in the ocean can grow up to 65 feet and 75,000 pounds. They are as large as many whales, and as big as, or bigger than, a city bus.
2. The largest fish in the ocean eats the smallest creatures in the ocean: tiny plankton, small fish, and small crustaceans. They are filter feeders, which means they gulp sea water through their gills, and when the water is pushed out, prey gets stuck to their gill plates. Yum!
3. Whale Sharks are sharks and do not have bones, but cartilage. Cartilage does not fossilize as well as bones do, so there is not a huge fossil record of sharks. Most of what we know of ancient sharks come from their teeth.
4. Female Whale Sharks are bigger than the males and are found in all warm oceans: Pacific, Indian and Atlantic.
5. Whale Sharks are gentle creatures and one can swim right next to the animal with no fear.
6. Each whale shark has a unique spot pattern from it’s gill to over the pectoral fins. When swimming with whale sharks, it is best to take ID photos to upload into a scientific database like www.whaleshark.org.
7. Thanks to tagging and ID photographs much more is now known about Whale Sharks compared to 10 years ago. We know they migrate thousands of miles to opportunistically feed… Mexico is a hotspot, particularly the Yucatan where tuna spawn in the summer. Whale sharks can live up to 100 years!
8. It is not common to see pregnant females like the one pictured here. Much of the time one sees juvenile males. A female whale shark has been known to hold 300 fetuses. It is possible that female whale sharks may “save sperm” in order to fertilize their own eggs as they are made, but more study needs to be completed in order to know for certain.
9. Sadly, the whale shark is “vulnerable” according to the IUCN (International Union for Conservation of Nature and Natural Resources) Red List. Whale sharks are protected in most areas of the world but are still killed for their fins (for shark fin soup). Sharks are very toxic to humans so they are not a good food source, and humans have been very toxic toward sharks since we are responsible for the deaths of 75 to 100 million sharks a year.
If you wish to learn more about these fascinating sharks, check out www.marinemegafauna.org. Marine Megafauna Foundation studies large pelagic species in order to understand their ecology and protect them from illegal fishing practices. You can even adopt a shark, manta ray, or sea turtle! The proceeds go toward scientific study of the animals for conservation purposes. Marine Megafauna also offers expeditions (like the one I was just on in the Yucatan) in order to assist scientists by performing citizen science. We are all responsible for the condition of our planet, and we all need to contribute in some way. If you’d like to learn more about sharks and the state of our oceans, I recommend going to www.sharkwater.com and seeing the documentaries of Rob Stewart, or checking the BBC or Discovery Channel.