On August 30, the world is showing the biggest shark that lives in our oceans some big, BIG love. Because believe it or not, the biggest fish in the sea needs all the love they can get! Sure they are a shark – but they are the closest thing to a vegetarian that exists in the shark world. Filter feeders, they eat plankton. While their mouths are 4 feet wide, their throats are the size of a quarter. And before you begin to worry about their 3000+ teeth, you should probably know they are only the size of the head of a match.
It’s hard to believe given the fact they can grow up to 40 feet in length and weigh up to 20 tons, but they are very elusive and proficient in the art of underwater camouflage. In fact, Jacques Cousteau only saw three in his lifetime!
They are found in all temperate and tropical oceans around the world except for the Mediterranean Sea, and can migrate thousands of miles between feeding areas. They spend most of their lives near the surface, but have been known to dive to depths of almost 2,000m.
These gentle giants are magical – with a unique dot pattern that is specific to each individual whale shark. Their populations are so low that there is a genetic similarity among all whale sharks worldwide. Whale sharks play an extremely important role keeping the oceans healthy while also creating sustainable income for local communities through tourism. However, like many other shark species, whale sharks are classified as Endangered on the IUCN Red List of Endangered Species, with declining populations worldwide. With massive migratory areas that make them difficult to protect, the fact they are often bycatch or targeted for their meat + fins, and as filter feeders that they often consume micro-plastics, whale sharks need all the help they can get.
Here’s everything you need to know about these incredible fish – including how to meet them, how to protect them, and how to celebrate them every day!
Whale Shark Fun Facts:
- Name: Rhincodon typus
- Size: 18- 40 feet
- Weight: up to 20 tons (equivalent to 3 African Elephants, a full school bus or 12,000+ bricks!)
- Physical features: mouths are 5 feet wide with 3,000 teeth, eyes are as big as golf balls
- Life Span: estimated 60-100 years
- IUCN Red List Status: Endangered
1) Love Tropical Waters Both Deep and Shallow
The preferred environments of whale sharks are tropical and temperate waters and all over the world, including both deep and shallow coastal waters and lagoons of coral atolls.
A marine biologist named Eric Hoffmayer recorded the deepest dive yet: in 2008, he monitored a shark in the Gulf of Mexico that descended 6,324 feet. Sharks lack a swim bladder that keeps other fish buoyant, so one idea is that whale sharks free-fall toward the seafloor to rest.
Whale sharks especially love the Philippines. In 2016, the 1000th whale shark was identified in Philippine waters, making the Philippines the third largest known aggregation of whale sharks in the world and the biggest in South East Asia.
2) Endurance Swimmers Who Are Global Travelers
Whale sharks are one of the most migratory species and can travel around 40 miles per day! They tend to prefer different geographic locations at various times of year based largely on water temperature, food supplies and breeding opportunities. Genetic studies show that whale sharks across the globe are closely related which suggests that mating is one of the reasons for such long travels.
It is believed that pregnant females will migrate long distances to be able to give birth near remote islands where baby sharks will be out of reach of common predators.
But they are also slow swimmers (for sharks) usually moving at no more than 3 mph. Their swimming pattern is different than most sharks in that instead of using just the caudal fin for primary propulsion, they use the full posterior two-thirds of their body length.
The record for whale shark migration was 12,000 miles by a whale shark named Anne in 2011. She was tracked making the mammoth migration from near Panama in the southeastern Pacific, to an area close to the Philippines in the Indo-Pacific. Other tracked whale sharks have traveled:
- Over 8,000 miles from the Gulf of CA, Mexico to Tonga
- 3,107 miles to the coast of Thailand
3) They Enjoy Alone Time
Whale sharks are usually solitary creatures but come together for months in large aggregations to feed in plankton-dense waters. After feeding, they drift off in random directions, completely disappearing during winter and spring.
4) They Practice Vegetarianism
Whale sharks can eat plankton up to 45 pounds of plankton each day (which is equivalent to 121 cheeseburgers per day). But they also eat shrimp, sardines, anchovies, mackerels, squid, tuna, and albacore. and fish eggs. According to The Nature Conservatory, whale sharks will wait as long as 14 hours for fish to spawn on reefs and then they will swoop in and eat the eggs.
But they also largely have a vegetarian diet, especially when other prey is scarce. Scientists discovered that whale sharks get more than half their nutrients from plants and algae.
5) Each Baby Whale Shark is a Miracle!
Whale sharks are ovoviviparous, meaning they produce eggs that hatch inside the mother’s uterus. Litters can be up to 300 pups but not all pups are birthed at the same time. That is almost twice as many as any other shark species.
But only one pregnant whale shark has ever been studied and, interestingly, many of these embryos were at different stages of development. Scientists observed that some were still in their egg cases whilst others had emerged but were still in the uterus. This may signify that females are able to store a male’s sperm, selectively fertilizing their eggs over a prolonged period.
Juvenile whale sharks, as docile and vulnerable as their elders, often become prey for other sharks and orcas, so while a female may birth more than 300 pups at a time, survival rates are devastatingly low; females giving birth to multiple litters at different times could increase their survival rate which could be why they have their very own, built-in sperm banks.
Making the birth of a whale shark even more miraculous is the fact that each whale shark’s pattern is as unique as a human fingerprint!
Think You Know Whale Sharks? Click here for a fun way to test your whale shark IQ!
Header Photo: Whale shark in Oslob by Shawn Heinrichs
Help protect our marine environment with BSAC’s new Shore Surveyor course
BSAC has partnered with Scottish environmental charity, Seawilding, to offer everyone the chance to help champion the marine environment with the new Shore Surveyor course.
Delivered by eLearning, Shore Surveyor has been designed to engage people, particularly children and young people, in the issues that face our precious marine life. With a focus on the UK’s native oyster and seagrass beds, this eLearning course equips participants with the skills needed to help identify seashore-based habitats and record what they find.
Shore Surveyor is open to everyone, whether they are BSAC members or not.
Working with Seawilding, the UK’s first community-led native oyster and seagrass restoration project, Shore Surveyor participants will also learn about the native oyster and seagrass beds and the issues they currently face.
Both the UK’s native oyster and seagrass habitats have experienced a serious decline over the past 200 years, resulting in an estimated 95% reduction in populations. The new Shore Surveyor course ties directly into BSAC’s major new marine project, Operation Oyster, which aims to protect and restore native oyster habitats around the UK.
By the end of the course, participants can become ‘citizen scientists’ by helping to locate and record seashore areas where current or potential native oysters or seagrass populations are present. This data can then be fed into the National Marine Records Database to help scientists studying our coast as well as support future underwater surveys.
Seawilding CEO, Danny Renton, said he was delighted to partner with BSAC on the Shore Surveyor course.
“Our seas are in peril, and it’s so important to engage families and especially young people, in the wonders of the sea and to engage them in marine conservation. The Shore Surveyor course is the first step to get involved in initiatives like seagrass and native oyster restoration and to nurture a new generation of ocean activists, environmentalists and marine biologists.”
BSAC’s Chief Executive, Mary Tetley, said the new Shore Surveyor course was also part of BSAC’s drive to get more young people actively involved in marine life protection.
“This new course not only explores the threats faced by our precious oceans but also empowers people to get directly involved.
“From a family visit to the beach to a club diving or snorkelling trip, the skills learned on Shore Surveyor can be invaluable to anyone, young or not so young, who wants to make a difference to our under-pressure marine life.”
One of the first participants of the Shore Surveyor course, 16-year-old Lili, from North Wales, has recently put her new found surveying skills into action while on her summer holidays.
“I loved it because it was simple and easy to use and remember,” said Lili. “All ages will enjoy it – young children, teenagers, parents, even grandparents.
“There is a bit of eLearning to do before you start but that is easy to do, and the course really helps you when you go out and see everything for real on the beach!”
Shore Surveyor is open to children aged eight up to adults and costs £20. For more information and to book onto the eLearning course, go to bsac.com/shoresurveyor.
For more information on Operation Oyster and other ways you can get involved, go to bsac.com/operationoyster
PADI and Seiko Prospex unite to help create the world’s largest underwater cleanup for ocean change
PADI® and Seiko Prospex are teaming up to help marine conservation charity Oceanum Liberandum host the world’s largest underwater cleanup event in Sesimbra, Portugal on 24 September 2022.
Taking place during AWARE Week, the event aims to bring together 700 divers to clean up the coastline for a 12-hour period and is anticipated to host the most divers ever on record taking part in one consecutive underwater cleanup effort. Participating divers and dive centres from around the region will come together to collect marine debris–which will ultimately be logged into PADI’s Dive Against Debris database.
“Our database is the world’s largest in terms of capturing seafloor debris data, which has already helped drive two pioneering scientific papers being used to create new waste management policies,” says Emma Daffurn, CSR Specialist for PADI Worldwide. “More than 250 million tons of plastic are estimated to make its way into our ocean by 2025 and the environmental damage caused by plastic debris alone is estimated at $13 billion US a year. This world record attempt further highlights the important role divers play in reporting, removing and advocating to stop marine debris at its source.”
PADI is proud to have Seiko Prospex on board as the sponsor of the marine debris program and a partner for this world record attempt. Their support is critical to advancing the PADI Blueprint for Ocean Action, and protecting the global ocean now and for generations to come.
“Helping to raise awareness and take an active role in environmental conservation has become one of Seiko Prospex’s missions,” says Miguel Rodrigues, Sales & Marketing Director for Seiko Prospex. “We seek, whenever possible, to support events that have ocean conservation at their core, and we are very honored to sponsor the world’s largest underwater cleanup. We are proud to contribute to a more sustainable future where humans are an integral part of nature.”
Those who want to volunteer to take part in the world record attempt can learn more and sign up at oceanumliberandum.pt/en/Largest-Underwater-cleanup-in-the-World/. The 15 euro registration fee will go towards supporting dive centres with boats, facilities and air bottle logistics.
“We’re thrilled to have the chance to work with Seiko in supporting the largest underwater cleanup event so that we can mobilise Ocean TorchbearersTM to take action to protect what they love, capture more essential data for policy changes, and continue the wave of momentum in creating positive ocean change,” says Daffurn.
For more from PADI, visit www.padi.com
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