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Marine Life & Conservation

Whale Shark: The Biggest Fish in the Ocean

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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.

I took this photo of the vertical, pregnant whale shark and our Kiwi!

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!

Andrea photographing.

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.

This lousy photo gives you a sense of the scale of these animals!

4.  Female Whale Sharks are bigger than the males and are found in all warm oceans: Pacific, Indian and Atlantic.

Two feeding sharks

5.  Whale Sharks are gentle creatures and one can swim right next to the animal with no fear.

This is the big gulp!!!

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.

Here is a Whale Shark ID shot.

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.

Feeding series 2. I swam in front of the shark to get a shot and she buttoned up.

Feeding series 3. She opened back up when I reached her other side.

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.

Fin and Andrea

 

What a beautiful animal.

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.

Tam Warner Minton is an avid scuba diver, amateur underwater photographer, and adventurer. She encourages "citizen science" diving, whether volunteering with a group or by one's self. For Tam, the unexpected is usually the norm!

Marine Life & Conservation

Boating and conservation worlds unite to save Studland’s seagrass and seahorses

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Charity The Seahorse Trust and national marina group boatfolk have joined forces to deliver a practical solution for saving Studland’s unique marine environment.

The two organisations have collaborated on a not-for-profit scheme to put ten ‘eco-moorings’ into Studland Bay to give boaters an attractive, environmentally friendly alternative to dropping their anchors. The dropping of anchors has damaging consequences for seabed environments including seagrass meadows. This is a significant concern as seagrass provides essential habitat for species including seahorses and also stores up to twice as much carbon per hectare as terrestrial forests, playing a major role in keeping climate change in check.

The scheme was recently approved by the Marine Management Organisation (MMO) following its designation in 2019 as a Marine Conservation Zone (MCZ) and installation of the new eco-moorings is now underway. The organisations’ eco-mooring proposal was supported by letters from high-profile conservation advocates including Chris Packham and Steve Backshall. The scheme is also being supported by Mitch Tonks and Rockfish who will provide funding for the installation of one of the eco-moorings.

The MCZ designation was made on the basis of Studland Bay’s seagrass meadows, which are an internationally important breeding ground for the Spiny Seahorse, one of Britain’s native seahorse species. The Spiny Seahorse was protected in 2008 under the Wildlife and Countryside Act following campaigning by the Seahorse Trust. The legal aim of the MCZ designation was to return both seagrass and seahorses to ‘favourable condition’.

Image: Ross Young

Neil Garrick-Maidment, Founder and Executive Director of The Seahorse Trust said: “The designation of Studland Bay as a Marine Conservation Zone was a long-awaited and hugely significant moment in safeguarding UK seahorse populations. It is now vital that the area is effectively protected and that everyone who uses the bay does so responsibly and sustainably. I am delighted to be working with boatfolk to develop a practical solution, which allows boaters to continue enjoying this remarkable site, in a way which also enables the conservation of rare seagrass meadows and crucial seahorse breeding grounds.”

Michael Prideaux, Managing Director of boatfolk said: “In late August, I met Neil on the beach at Studland Bay. We were united by our shared passion for the environment and by a desire to work with, and alongside, the boating community for a solution that everyone can get behind. boatfolk is all about making it easy for people to get out on the water and to enjoy their time afloat. Providing an alternative option at Studland that protects this incredible marine environment is about doing the right thing for boaters and for our planet. Financial return is not an objective here; we are committed to making Studland Bay a sustainable boating destination for generations to come and are proud to be putting our name and resources behind the scheme.”

The scheme forms part of boatfolk’s wider sustainability strategy, Coastline Deadline, a new platform designed to back projects which have a real, positive and measurable impact on the coastline.

Michael Prideaux adds, “We know our industry has an impact on the environment and that not enough is being done to raise awareness and change behaviours. Our goal isn’t to stop people boating. In fact, it’s the opposite. By making changes now we want to ensure that the coastline and oceans remain a place that can be enjoyed for generations to come.”

Image: Neil Garrick-Maidment

The benefits of eco-moorings are well-documented. Such moorings involve a helical screw anchor being driven into the seabed. An elastic rode is then attached, connecting the anchor system with the mooring buoy. The elastic rode will stretch at higher tides and contract at lower tides meaning that none of the equipment scours the seagrass around it. The moorings also provide a hassle-free option for boaters, saving them the trouble of having to drop their own anchors (which can often drag before taking a hold and leave the boat owner to clean the equipment afterwards).

Neil Garrick-Maidment and Michael Prideaux commented: “The Seahorse Trust and boatfolk are united in a clear belief that eco-moorings are the way forward for Studland, allowing boaters to continue enjoying the site while seagrass and seahorses thrive alongside. We were thrilled  to secure  MMO approval   for our proposal, which we believe provides a practical and collaborative roadmap to finally giving Studland Bay the effective protection it deserves, and are delighted that installation of the eco-moorings is now underway following successful tests of the helical screw.

The Seahorse Trust and boatfolk are very grateful to award-winning Devon and Dorset restaurant group Rockfish for their generous sponsorship of one of the initial ten eco-moorings.

Mitch Tonks, restaurateur, Rockfish and Seahorse restaurants, and co-founder of the Devon Environment Foundation, expressed his support for the scheme: “We believe Rockfish has a purpose beyond our restaurants. This is exactly the sort of project we like to support – practical, visible and useful, as well as changing the way we impact our world. It’s this on-the-ground stuff we love that people like The Seahorse Trust go out there and do.”

For more information on the work of The Seahorse Trust visit their website by clicking here.

Header image: Neil Garrick-Maidment

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Marine Life & Conservation

Huge thresher shark is the latest of six murals to be painted around the Solent this summer

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The murals celebrate the Solent’s extraordinary marine life – marking National Marine Week.

Secrets of the Solent have commissioned street artist ATM to paint a series of marine-themed artworks at various locations around the Solent this summer. The latest mural to be finished shows a thresher shark on the Langstone Harbour Office. Langstone Harbour is an important area for wildlife as well as a bustling seaside destination for sailing and water sports.

Artist ATM, who is painting all six murals, is well-known for his iconic wildlife street art. This, his second artwork of the series, took three days to paint freehand, from a scaffolding platform. The thresher shark was chosen out of six marine species to be the subject of the artwork by the local community, who were asked to vote via an online form or in person on the Hayling Ferry.

Secrets of the Solent hope the mural will become a landmark in Langstone Harbour and inspire visitors to learn more about this enigmatic oceanic shark. The project, which is supported by the National Lottery Heritage Fund, works to celebrate and raise awareness of Solent’s diverse marine environment.

Aiming to highlight the exotic and unusual creatures found close to our coasts, artist ATM says: “I really enjoyed painting the thresher shark because it’s such an amazing looking animal, with a tail as long as its body. I hope when people see the murals, they will become more aware of what lives under the waves and the importance of protecting the vital habitats within the Solent.”

Dr Tim Ferrero, Senior Marine Biologist at Hampshire & Isle of Wight Wildlife Trust says: “The thresher shark is a wonderful animal that visits our waters every summer. It comes to an area to the east of the Isle of Wight, and this appears to be where the sharks breed and have their young. Not many people know that we have thresher sharks in our region, and so having our mural here on the side of the Langstone Harbour Office building is a fantastic way of raising awareness of this mysterious ocean wanderer. I really hope that people will come away with the knowledge that the Solent, our harbours and our seas are incredibly important for wildlife.”

Rachel Bryan, Project Manager for Secrets of the Solent at Hampshire & Isle of Wight Wildlife Trust comments: “We are really excited to have street artist ATM painting a thresher shark on the side of the Langstone Harbour Office building. We chose this building because of its prominent location right on the entrance to Langstone Harbour so that anyone who’s visiting, whether that’s walkers, cyclists or people coming in and out of the harbour on their jet-skis or sailing boats, will all be able to see our thresher shark. People on the Portsmouth side of the harbour will also be able to see the mural from across the water.”

The thresher shark is a mysterious predator which spends most of its time in oceanic waters. It uses its huge whip-like tail as an incredibly effective tool for hunting its prey. Herding small fish into tight shoals, the shark will lash at them with its tail, stunning several in one hit and making them easier to catch.

Secrets of the Solent hope to work with the species this summer to discover more about its behaviour.

Dr Tim Ferrero explains: “Nobody really knows where thresher sharks go in the ocean. Later this summer we are hoping that we are going to be able to attach a satellite tag to a thresher shark and monitor its progress for an entire year. This will provide really important information that will help us learn so much more about the shark’s annual life cycle.”

The new thresher shark mural is a fantastic start to National Marine Week (24th July – 8th August), which celebrates the unique marine wildlife and habitats we have here in the UK. Over the two weeks, Wildlife Trusts around the country will be running a series of exciting events to celebrate the marine environment. We really hope people will be inspired by our murals and want to learn more about each chosen species.

Events in the Solent include the launch of a new Solent marine film on the 29th July, installation of a new Seabin on the 4th August to reduce marine litter, and citizen science surveys throughout summer.

For more information click here.

Header image: Bret Charman

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