Today is International Whale Shark Day, so what better time to celebrate these magnificent creatures? Here are 10 facts to dazzle your friends with:
1. We know you’re wondering: whale shark – whale, or shark? The whale shark is a shark, and as a shark (and thus a fish), it is the largest fish in the sea. It breathes via its gills, and has cartilage instead of bone, making it a true shark. The name “whale shark” comes from the shark’s large size, which rivals some species of whales, and also because the shark is a filter feeder, like baleen whales.
2. When we say that the whale shark is big, it’s no fish tale: Whale sharks can reach lengths of 40 feet or more, and weigh more than 10 tons. Not only is the whale shark the largest fish in the ocean, but it’s the largest fish that has ever existed!
3. Whale sharks are extremely unusual, because unlike their almost all other shark species, the whale shark is not a top predator. Instead, whale sharks feed on plankton – tiny plants and shrimp-like animals that float in the water.
4. The whale shark has a massive mouth – about twice the size of a manhole cover! To eat, the shark either actively sucks water into its mouth, or swims along near the surface of the water with its mouth agape while cruising for plankton.
5. Whale sharks have gray skin polka-dotted with pale yellow spots and stripes. The spots and patterns are like a fingerprint, unique to each individual, and are helpful to scientists in counting populations and tracking individual sharks.
6. The whale shark’s life cycle and lifespan are still largely a mystery, but it is estimated that whale sharks may live to over 100 years of age! Whale sharks don’t reach maturity until 30 years, which adds to the vulnerability of this threatened species.
7. Small fish like remoras, pilot fish, and juvenile golden trevallies are often seen “hitching a ride” on whale sharks’ skin, or even in their mouths!
8. Scientists have long wondered where the whale shark gives birth. A nine-year study tagging and tracking more than 800 whale sharks suggests that whale sharks may actually give birth to pups out in the open ocean, which may be a safer place for the pups. Nursery areas are usually places close to the coast, so for whale sharks to give birth in the middle of the ocean is an unusual occurrence.
9. The same study found that after feeding, whale sharks head off in seemingly random directions. Some travel thousands of miles, and they can dive a mile deep.
10. Whale sharks’ far-flung migrations mean that protecting this rare and threatened species will require international collaboration. Whale sharks’ large size, slow speed, and habit of swimming near the surface makes them easy targets for fishermen, who hunt the whale shark for its flesh, liver oil, cartilage, and fins. The species is only protected in a few more than a dozen of the 100 countries’ waters it is known to visit.
The whale shark range includes the U.S. East Coast, which is considering allowing seismic airgun testing. These dynamite-like blasts will deafen or kill tens of thousands of marine creatures like the magnificent whale shark. Luckily, we can do something to stop it. Please sign our petition to protect these gentle giants from harm.