So what’s the deal – is a whale shark a whale or a shark? Not only is the name a bit confusing, but so is the endearing character of Destiny (the whale shark) from the Pixar animation ‘Finding Dory’. Destiny is housed next door to a beluga whale and can even speak ‘whale’ – so surely she is a whale, right?
Actually no, whale sharks are indeed sharks, the biggest sharks in the seas, with individuals reaching lengths of 12m and more (on average 5.5 – 10m). With animals this size, one can imagine the expression ‘that’s a whale of a shark!’ turning into the name of ‘whale shark’.
Despite their colossal size, these are passive animals that simply swim through the ocean, their moths gaping wide, swallowing tiny plankton (and any poor fish that happen to be in the vicinity of its huge jaws). They spend most of their time near the surface of the ocean, but they have been recorded to dive down to depths of 2kms!
They are also tropical animals, inhabiting the warm waters of the oceans. Researchers consider there to be two sub-populations of these highly mobile animals, a larger population that occurs in the Indo-Pacific Ocean and a smaller population that occurs in the Atlantic Ocean. Locally in South Africa, they are only seasonally seen on the odd occasion on the east coast. Our nearest ‘hotspot’ for whale sharks is Tofu beach in Mozambique.
These animals are major tourist attractors, and thousands of people snorkel and scuba dive with them every year. If ever you are lucky enough to encounter one of these majestic animals, make sure to take a photo and submit it to this website: https://www.whaleshark.org/. You can actually identify individual whale sharks by the spots behind their gills, and researchers maintain a database of identified individuals to assist in scientific efforts.
These charismatic animals were listed as endangered by the IUCN Red List in 2016. Even though a number of commercial fisheries for whale sharks closed during 1990 – 2000, whale shark products still remain valuable and these animals are still commonly caught in certain countries. If no further action is taken to conserve these animals, populations are likely to continue to decline.
There have been attempts at conservation, for example, they are listed on Appendix II of the Convention of International Trade in Endangered Species (CITES). This means any fishing states have to show that their exported products were derived from sustainably managed populations. Unfortunately, illegal trade seems to be the name of the game as whale shark fins still appear in Hong Kong markets, with no records in the CITES Wildlife Trade database.
So, let’s spread some love and appreciation for the biggest and one of the most passive sharks in the ocean. Only with awareness and education can we create a respect for the ocean and inhabitants, and this respect will go a long way towards conservation efforts.
Whale shark image:
By Shiyam ElkCloner - Own work, CC BY-SA 3.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=19611665