Where to See, And How You Can Help Whale Sharks
The planet is small. Some might think earth is large, but in reality, it is a small place where all creatures must share its space. But it isn’t happening. Humans are continuously dominating and making it difficult for other animals to live, breathe, and thrive. For the next installment in our Animals series, I have called on another travel writer Kathryn Curzon from Live Aboard, to give valuable information on a very important and mysterious animal that shares our oceans. Read below Kathryn’s information on how you can help Whale Sharks.
Whale sharks, the largest fish in the world, are easily recognizable by their unique spot and stripe patterns and huge size. Whilst they are large like whales, they are actually a species of carpet shark and are found in tropical waters around the globe. They are also seen in cooler waters but are mainly seen within the Indian and Pacific oceans.
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Whale Shark Facts
- Whale sharks grow to a length of about 12 metres (40 feet) and weigh up to 20 tonnes (40,000 lbs).
- This species of shark first appeared 60 million years ago.
- They are filter feeders, like basking and megamouth sharks, and their mouths are about 1.5 meters (5 feet) wide.
- They have rows of over 300 teeth, but they feed almost exclusively on plankton and do not use the teeth for feeding. They will sometimes eat shrimp, small fish species, tuna and fish eggs.
- Their skin is covered in tooth-like denticles and can be up to 4 inches thick.
- Each whale shark has a unique pattern of spots, like the human fingerprint.
- They can dive to over 979 metres (3215 feet), though spend the majority of their time within 30 metres (100 feet) of the surface.
- Whale sharks produce hundreds of eggs and give birth to live young, as the eggs hatch inside the female rather than in the water.
- They have a very fast growth rate as juveniles, with infants growing up to 18 inches per year. This is important to help them avoid predators that try to feed on them.
- They are highly migratory, and a whale shark can travel more than 8000 miles in three years.
- We don’t yet know how long whale sharks live but scientists estimate it could be as long as 100 to 150 years.
Whale sharks are listed as an Endangered species on the IUCN Red List of Threatened Species. Up to 75% of the global whale shark population is found in the Indo-Pacific, with the remaining 25% in the Atlantic. In the last 75 years, the Indo-Pacific population has reduced by 63% and the Atlantic population has reduced by 30%.
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A global database of whale shark sightings is hosted by Wildbook for Whale Sharks. Wildbook uses photographs of the skin pattern behind different whale sharks’ gills to identify individuals. There were 7011 individual sharks on the database as of February 2017 and this represents the minimum number of whales sharks alive at that time, as some are not recorded.
Threats to Whale Sharks (vessel strikes, plastics, habitat)
Whilst the trade in whale shark products and fishing for whale sharks has been banned in some countries, they are still under threat from various human activities.
Whale sharks are caught as by-catch in fisheries focusing on other species and are also traded internationally for their meat and fins. Shark fins are a valuable product in Asian countries and are a primary ingredient in the aptly-named shark fin soup, which retails at over $100 USD per bowl. Whale shark meat is readily available and other products that are traded include liver oil, cartilage and skin.
Whale sharks are also threatened by boat strikes and are thought to be vulnerable to such strikes because they spend considerable time feeding at the surface. Habitat damage is also a concern, with declining whale shark numbers in the 1980s and 1990s at Ningaloo Reef, Australia possibly being due to reef damage.
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The combination of habitat damage and boat traffic also has the potential to disturb whale shark migration patterns.
A whale shark study published in Trends in Ecology and Evolution in February 2018, has raised concerns that whale sharks may be swallowing hundreds of pieces of micro-plastic daily when they filter feed. This would further reduce the population size of this species by reducing the sharks’ ability to absorb nutrients, affecting their growth hormones, and by increased toxin exposure.
Diving with Whale Sharks
Diving with whale sharks is a great way to conserve this magnificent species. By choosing reputable operators that focus on shark conservation, of which there are many, holiday choices can support ecotourism and therefore the live value of whale sharks. By increasing their tourism value, it becomes more important for countries to keep whale sharks alive and protected.
Found at idyllic destinations around the globe, swimming alongside these sharks is an unforgettable experience, and one that can be combined with diving in warm, crystal-clear waters.
One of the premier places to dive with whale sharks is the Sea of Cortez, Mexico. Whale sharks are almost guaranteed there during July to October each year and it also happens to be a great destination for diving with sea lions, dolphins, and manta rays.
Another popular destination for whale shark diving is South Ari Atoll in the Maldives, which Lonely Planet rated as one of the best places to dive with whale sharks.
Seychelles liveaboard diving is ideal for novice divers wanting to swim with whale sharks as the sharks feed at or near the ocean surface there. Djibouti, Honduras, Australia, and Indonesia are also top whale shark dive destinations.
More information about whale shark diving can be found in The Best Places to Dive with Whale Sharks.
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This article was written by Kathryn Curzon, a diver and writer for Liveaboard.com and this Facebook page. All views expressed and research provided was through Live Abroad and was not influenced in any way by Fill My Passport.