Whale sharks, or Rhincodon typus, are, despite their confusing name, a type of gentle shark who is harmless to humans. It is the largest shark and the largest fish alive today. Because of their huge size, they need to eat a lot of food, yet the food they eat is tiny: plankton. These filter feeders swim with their mouths open, eating all the plankton and small fish in their way. Adult whale sharks usually feed at the surface, but they can dive 1,000 meters deep. They must travel far to find enough food to survive. Whale sharks live in all warm tropical oceans in the world. They generally roam alone, but in areas with abundant plankton food, like Donsal Bay, the Philippines and Ningaloo Reef, Australia, they will often gather in groups called schools. Whale sharks are huge, being the largest species of fish alive today. Most average about 40 feet long and 15 tons, but some of the largest were almost 60 feet long. They usually live to be around 70 years old. The stripes and spots that pattern the whale sharks are different for each of these massive fish.
The main reason whale sharks are endangered is fishing and tourism. Many of these gentle giants are lost to the fishing industry to fill the demand for whale shark’s meat, fins, and oil. This is a big threat to them, so luckily in many countries whale sharks are protected from fishing, but a big threat is unregulated fisheries. They are also victims of bycatch, which is when animals are accidentally caught in fishing gear meant for a different animal. Tourism also affects the whale shark because it can stop and corrupt their feeding. As whale sharks are distinctive and huge, many tourists come to areas like Ningaloo Reef and Donsal Bay and see whale sharks. Boats pose another threat to the whale shark because they will sometimes be hit by boats while feeding, or injured by boat propellers. Because of all this, whale sharks are endangered and decreasing.
Whale sharks are important to help show how healthy the ocean is. Since whale sharks eat and follow plankton, the distribution of whale sharks shows the distribution of plankton. This also shows the overall health of the ocean, because since plankton is the beginning of the food chain, all the animals that live in the oceans indirectly depend on plankton. In this way, whale sharks show how healthy the ocean is.
Researchers at organizations like the World Wildlife Fund are collecting data on how the whale shark moves, which is used to create rules on fishing and protect the sharks. Since 1998, the World Wildlife Fund has been working to create safer whale shark tourism in Donsol Bay, and to make sure that when people/boats interact with whale sharks, everyone is protected. They are also creating a database by photographing the unique patterns on the whale sharks skin. Learning more about these animals can make it easier to help them. You can help the World Wildlife Fund and other organizations by donating, and you can raise awareness for the dangers that tourism pose to the whale shark.
“Whale Shark.” National Geographic, https://www.nationalgeographic.com/animals/fish/w/whale-shark/. Accessed 24 July 2020.
“Whale Shark” Britannica Encyclopedia, 28 May 2020 https://www.britannica.com/animal/whale-shark. Accessed 24 July 2020.
“Whale Shark” World Wildlife Fund, https://www.worldwildlife.org/species/whale-shark. Accessed 24 July 2020.
*all pictures used with permission, and/or taken from the sites above.