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8 Wonders of Whale Sharks

8 Wonders of Whale Shark

Secretive, gentle, and absolutely huge, whale sharks are one of the true wonders of the ocean. These magnificent creatures roam the Indian, Atlantic, and Pacific oceans, and despite their size, they’re only occasionally glimpsed by mankind. If you’re very lucky, you may see these ancient creatures as they migrate past the coast of Mexico, or in the warm waters of the Philippines and Australia.

 

 

1. They're not whales!

Even though they’re called whale sharks, they’re not related to whales but are a member of the shark family. That means they’ve been swimming around our oceans in one form or another for millions of years. They belong to the genus elasmobranchs, which includes skates and rays. That means they are cartilaginous fish and have a skeleton made of cartilage, not bone. They are, in fact, the world’s largest fish!

2. Every dot is different

Whale sharks are distinctive for their patterns of dots, and every single one is different. Think of them as the whale shark’s ‘fingerprints’, with every pattern of dots unique to the individual creature. It’s this sequence of dots all along their body that allows scientists studying the species to tell different individuals apart. Like many large marine animals, their underbelly is white, and they have light-coloured vertical and horizontal stripes on their back and sides. This is believed to be a form of camouflage known as countershading, making them surprisingly difficult to see from below, and protecting them against attacks from predatory sharks like great whites.

3. The gentle giants of the ocean

The term ‘whale shark’ was given to these huge creatures because of their size. They can grow up to 65 feet long and weigh in at a scale-busting 75,000lbs, which puts them in the same category as some of the world’s largest whales. Like other species of shark, the female is larger than the male.

5. Long distance travellers

Like most large marine animals, whale sharks are migratory, often travelling thousands of miles every year along well-established routes. They roam the oceans at will, with one individual that had been tagged travelling over 8,000 miles in a little over three years. They have a particular liking for the Mexican coast, and in 2009 a ‘swarm’ of over 400 individuals was spotted off the Yucatan Peninsula – what an incredible sight that must have been!

6. They’re carnivorous, but don’t worry, they only eat plankton and shrimp!

Unlike other predatory sharks, whale sharks are very particular about what they eat and prefer plankton, small fish, and crustaceans. They’re filter feeders, which means they gulp in huge mouthfuls of water and then filter out the food by forcing the water back out through their gills. They can filter over 1,500 gallons of water an hour.

7. The Cold War could help us learn more about whale sharks

During the 1950s and ‘60s, atomic testing in the Pacific produced a huge amount of radioactivity. This may actually help scientists accurately age whale sharks. One of the side effects of the atomic tests was an increase in the amount of Carbon-14 in the atmosphere. It’s easy for scientists to determine the age of anything containing these Carbon-14 isotopes (including older whale sharks), as they has a set ‘decay’ rate. By using this baseline, we may be able to determine more accurately the age of individual whale sharks which, in turn, will help scientists understand their life-cycle in more depth. That could aid in the conservation and protection of the species in years to come.

8. An endangered species

Although whale sharks are critically endangered, as more people become aware of their importance in the ocean’s ecosystem, they’ve become protected by those who once hunted them. Numbers are starting to creep upwards, but they are still in extreme risk, and there is no indication as to what climate change and the warming of the oceans could do to their numbers in the future. Currently, they’re listed on the International Union for Conservation of Nature’s ‘Red List’, indicating that they are still extremely vulnerable.
Conservation tourism has become a real lifeline for whale sharks, and as interest has increased businesses now offer tourists the chance to have an encounter of their own. It’s important, though, that the experience is done on the whale shark’s terms, so that these majestic creatures are not disturbed or stressed in any way.