In recent news, there has been great outcry from conservationists in regards of the video of a man surfing on a Whale Shark in Venezuela. Not only is it disrespectful to the animal, but it is also illegal because the Whale Shark is listed as a vulnerable species and is protected by the Red List of Threatened Species.
In light of this atrocious disrespect for these majestic species, today’s post will discuss what makes this species of shark so special to me and the rest of the marine conservation world.
Whale Sharks, or Rhincodon typus, is both the largest species of shark and fish! They can grow to approximately 11 tons and the largest one measured was 40 ft long (we think they can get MUCH bigger)! Just for a size comparison, these guys are longer than a school bus!
Look at the size of that one!
Additionally to their massive size, these sharks are known for their beautiful markings along their bodies. Each Whale Shark has its own unique markings, which has allowed researchers to identify hundreds of individuals using a computer system that was originally used to plot stars.
Unlike most sharks, these gentle giants are pelagic, which means they spend a majority of their time swimming the open ocean rather than staying close to the ocean floor. This relates back to their large appetite for plankton, which they filter using their teeth (similar to baleen whales). With their 5 ft wide mouths, they have no problem capturing the little critters! They’re often found quietly swimming in solitary, however in areas where plankton is found in abundance, they can be found gathering in large masses, feeding.
In general, Whale Sharks can be seen living in warm tropical waters across the globe. Research has shown that every year, they even migrate to the continental shelf in Australia. It is believed that they travel here for the nutrient rich waters that support a bounty supply of food.
Whale Shark distribution shown in dark blue.
Unfortunately, these elusive giants leave us with little knowledge on their breeding/birth (like most sharks) and their average life span. In the future, if we want to continue to see these massive fish we have to protect them and their food source. Even though they are protected by law, they are still under threat due to the demand surrounding their fins and meat, as well as injuries from boat propellers.
Education and conservation is key to getting the public involved and interested in saving the Whale Shark from extinction. One aquarium in particular is on the forefront of this task. The Georgia Aquarium currently has 4 Whale Sharks living in an aquarium that holds 6.3 million gallons of water and is up to 30 feet deep. If you’re lucky enough to have diving certification, you can have the opportunity to swim with and observe these giants at the aquarium. [Officially added to my Bucket List].
I know that keeping animals in captivity is a sensitive and controversial subject, but if I wouldn’t have visited zoos and aquariums during my childhood, I don’t believe I would have been inspired to work with whales and other ocean species.
If you are interested in helping protect this giant, you can donate to the WWF by “adopting” a Whale Shark here.
Happy Surfing! (Just avoid surfing on these lovely beings)
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