…whale sharks: the mysteries, and why we may never know

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Whale sharks are the biggest fish on earth, and arguably, the prettiest sharks on earth (check out my shark-beauty-rankings here for my case). They are peaceful, docile, at times sociable, and sadly, they are shrinking in both size and population.

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I wanted to write about whale sharks because… like snow leopards and bears, I have a thing about them. It’s the way they look like they’re smiling half the time, the spots, the docility, and because sharks in general fascinate me (they’ve existed on our planet for 400 million years, think about it). Of these ancient predators, whale sharks are the ones that maybe one day I’ll be able to swim with, because unlike most other sharks, they have no interest in eating me whatsoever. I know generally sharks are not dangerous man killers (it just happens sometimes), and that I’m more likely to get struck by lighting or killed by a vending machine etc, but regardless, a whale shark definitely won’t eat me, mainly because they can’t, on account of their tiny teeth and vacuuming/filtering eating style of predominantly microscopic diet, sometimes including small fish.

Whale sharks remain largely mysterious to us and we know very little about them in the grand scheme of things. No one has ever witnessed a whale shark giving birth, for example. They swim great distances into unknown waters, into depths that until recently we never knew they ventured to. Scientist working in Indonesia tracked a whale shark to depths of 1,808 metres.  Juvenile males also go cruising far and wide, taking trips lasting several years on occasion. These journeys stretch on for thousands of miles. The reasons behind these bouts of extreme exploration are unknown, so I’m going to speculate. They do it just to feel free and easy, hittin’ those watery roads to freedom because they can, making whale sharks the coolest, as well as the largest fish and prettiest shark on earth.

Here are some additional whale shark facts that I enjoyed discovering…

Vacuuming some grub.

Vacuuming some grub.

They sometimes hang out in groups near coastlines: The groups are called ‘coastal aggregations.’ Reasons unknown. Check out the largest swarm of whale sharks ever witnessed here. Around 420 whale sharks all together feeding off the coast of Mexico.

They are really slow: Only reaching speeds of 5kmph. They swim by moving their bodies from side to side, unlike most other sharks that are fast.

(All sharks) They don’t have a bone skeleton like most other fish: But are made up of cartilage, making them cartilaginous, like rays.

They have 3000 teethNot much used as previously stated (10 filter pads, vacuum eating style).

Now that the fun stuff has been explored, lets talk issues, and some alarming facts that caught my eyes and ears recently. Firstly, whale sharks are not as big as they used to be, or at least the really big ones seem to have gone missing. Not ten years ago adult whale sharks measuring up to 15 metres were a common occurrence, but in recent times sightings of of the bigger animals have become non-existent. The larger whale sharks seen in the last few years have been no bigger than 7 metres. Stating the obvious for impact, that’s not just a small dip in size. Imagine if in ten years time humans were peaking at four feet tall. We’d definitely be panicking, screaming, running around like maniacs on our stumpy little legs, waving our stumpy little arms around.

The reasons  behind this huge drop in whale shark size is largely unknown, but there are theories. Over fishing is a likely cause. Though the whale shark is now protected, and named a ‘threatened’ species, it is thankfully not yet classified an ‘endangered’ species. That said, in 2014 a non-profit orgnanisation revealed that a factory in China was processing 600 whale sharks a year. A whale shark is reportedly valued at around 30,000$, with it’s fin used in soup, it’s meat eaten, oils used in fish oil products, and that lovely speckled, 4 inch thick skin is used to make items such as hand bags. Founders of WildLifeRisk posed as buyers and entered the factory to record this data.

It is therefor possible that many of the larger, older whale sharks have been killed, though I like to think they are simply far wiser than us, hiding away in the depths we cannot reach. Whale sharks grow slowly, living for up to 80 years, so alternatively, if the larger whale sharks are truly no longer with us, we’ll just have to keep doing what we can to help them, while waiting for all the little whale sharks to grow up.

Looking angelic beneath golden rays, shafts, otherworldly, yes, I said it.

Looking angelic beneath golden rays, shafts, otherworldly, yes, I said it.

To highlight another specific incident, earlier this year (June 2016), just because it’s a nice story, two captive whale sharks were rescued. The were being held in an underwater cage off the coast of Indonesia, as reported by National Geographic, clear evidence of the fact that whale sharks are still in a lot of trouble. However, let’s take the positive, no matter how small. These whale sharks were saved and released into the ocean. So that’s one small victory right there, and you can see these lucky, liberated sharks  swimming freely in a video here.

To summarise, our much beloved whale sharks are still getting it hard, and we can only hope that these beautiful, deep sea monsters enjoy some stabilisation in the coming years, and that soon those 15 metre wonders not glimpsed  for over a decade, will be drifting through those tropical currents open mouthed and happy once again.

Before we leave our docile, friendly, charismatic ocean friends, let’s enjoy a few more instance of people and whale sharks working together to be awesome…

Peruvian fisherman saving a whale shark that was caught up in a fishing net:

Divers removing a barnacle covered rope from around a whale shark, and judging the deep cut and scarring, the rope has been there for a long time:

This whale shark actually came to us humans for help. Isn’t that something? It swam up to the small boat in distress and floated near the surface allowing the people on board the boat to enter the water and cut lose the rope in which it was entangled:

…what we need is more of this, and then maybe, just maybe, if we’re lucky, whale sharks will let us into that secret world of theirs, one I can only imagine is filled with wonder.

 

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