Whale Sharks: Getting to Know the Biggest Fish in the World
How would you react if someone asked if you wanted to swim alongside a 19 000 ton, 12-meter-long shark, with upwards of 300 rows of teeth? If given the opportunity, would you do it?
What if I told you that these sharks, despite being the biggest fish in the ocean, are harmless? Gentle, intelligent giants; basically the giant teddy bears of the sea? Do you want to swim with them now?
If you take the time to get past their large and intimidating exterior, you will realize that these creatures aren’t frightening, but fascinating. These amazing creatures roam the oceans, generally alone, feeding on plankton. They can live up to 100 years, and although they don’t reach sexual maturity until around age 30, the females can give birth to up to 300 pups at a time. Whale sharks also have unique spot patterns around their gills that researchers rely on to identify them. Each pattern is different, like the fingerprint of a human. If you take the time to get past their large and intimidating exterior, you will realize that these creatures are fascinating.
For those of us who are familiar with whale sharks, the idea of swimming with them is a dream. One of the biggest draws of whale sharks is that they are, in fact, harmless. There is zero record of a whale shark ever purposefully hurting a human. They are gentle and docile, and will often let divers, swimmers, or snorkelers get close. That is, if you are lucky enough to see one, because these amazing creatures have recently been put on the WWFs vulnerable extinction list.
While whale sharks are not dangerous, they are still feared by some and hunted by many. There is a high demand for their meat, oil, and fins on the international market. Like so many other species of shark, they are the targets of illegal hunting; mainly to be sold to the Asian markets. Shark fin soup is a specialty in Asian cultures, despite the fins having no taste. Bowls of this soup can cost upwards of $100 per dish, driving an increase in illegal fishing, and a decrease in the whale shark population.
However, it’s not just the hunting of whale sharks that has landed them on the vulnerable list, but also tourism as well. In certain places of the world, whale sharks are baited for tourism purposes. Other tour operators go too far to please their customers; getting too close and encouraging touching and grabbing onto their fins. Not only is human contact looked down upon (it can actually be harmful to the whale sharks), but the close proximity of these boats can injure the whale sharks as well, sometimes cutting them with the propellers.
The vulnerable state of this species is more than just the potential threat of another species going extinct. Whale sharks, like many other species of shark, help to regulate the ocean and keep other species in check. They are, without a doubt, an incredibly important part of the world’s largest ecosystem.
Want to help protect them? Take a look at this once in a lifetime whale shark research project; 13 nights in the Maldives working alongside the professionals to help research and photograph these amazing animals. Not only will you help make a difference, but you will also have the amazing opportunity to swim alongside them; a dream for any underwater enthusiast. Interested? Contact us to learn more and how you can help save the ocean’s gentle giants.