The chance to see a living coral reef, playful seals and penguins, giant octopi and ghostly beluga whales under the same roof and without getting wet is just the beginning of a trip to the Georgia Aquarium. The star attraction? The “Ocean Voyager” exhibit, a 6.33 million-gallon tank that is home to an array of fish species, including sawfish, rays, hammerhead sharks, groupers, and tunas. Oh yes, and whale sharks soar majestically overhead as visitors gaze up from a 100-foot tunnel.
Whale sharks are the largest fish species on the planet, yet so little is known about them. Where do their migrations take them? How do they breed? How do they find food? These are just some of the seemingly basic questions we have about whale sharks, and for many other sharks as well. The whale sharks on display in Atlanta are part of a larger research project the aquarium is conducting with various partners off the Mesoamerican coast to answer these and many other questions.
Shark populations are suffering from overfishing and bycatch, and whale sharks are particularly targeted for their fins. Rising demand for shark fin soup, a Chinese delicacy and sign of wealth and respect, is driving the price of shark fins ever upward. Naturally, the largest shark has the largest fins, which pound for pound bring in the most money–try $15,000 for one whale shark fin*. No wonder they’re listed as “vulnerable” on the IUCN RedList of Threatened Species, with trade in the species regulated by the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species (CITES).
The aquarium’s sharks also serve a public relations purpose, spreading the message that sharks aren’t necessarily the man-eating monsters pop culture portrays them to be. Such a campaign requires a dedicated staff (including 13 staff divers, 60 volunteer divers and 1300 volunteers) and state-of-the-art facility to care for the animals and ensure that visitors enjoy learning about one of the most magnificent creatures in the ocean.
This seems like a lot of trouble. Not everyone believes a whale shark should be kept in captivity, and I used to be one of them. After all, one of my dream diving experiences is to see these goliaths in the open ocean. But even diving in an area known for whale shark sightings during the optimal time, doesn’t guarantee the appearance of one, especially as their numbers continue to dwindle. In the tunnel, as I glance at my fellow visitors’ awe-struck faces, slack-jawed and wide-eyed, I realize that these whale sharks are making a difference, right in front of me.
*”Australia protects whale sharks.” ENS, November 11, 2001.
Image of Whale Shark (c)Wolcott Henry 2005/Marine Photobank
Image of Whale Shark and Diver (c) Quest Overseas/Marine Photobank