Whale Shark

"The Lord Fish" by Jason Chan (graphite and digital)

 
Ever since I was a kid, I have always found Whale Sharks fascinating. They are the gentle giants or the shark family. Unlike their ferocious cousins, they pose no threat to humans. Seeing photos or video them always reminded me of some kind of giant sea god and I imagine encountering one to be an almost spiritual experience.
— Jason Chan

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Habitat

Whale sharks prefer warm waters and they populate all tropical seas. They are known to migrate every spring to the continental shelf of the central west coast of Australia.

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Family Life

Whale sharks roam the oceans around the globe, generally alone. However, large numbers of whale sharks often gather in areas with abundant plankton.

Lifespan

The whale shark lifespan is an estimated 70-100 years, but measurements have proven difficult.

Hunting Habits/Diet

Whale sharks are filter feeders. They have an enormous mouth (nearly five feet wide) that they open and passively filter everything through their mouth and gills. Their favorite food is plankton, but they also eat  copepods, krill, fish eggs, Christmas Island red crab larvae and small squid or fish.

Population

No one knows how many whale sharks are left, but rough estimates put their numbers somewhere in the tens of thousands worldwide.  The number of has been cut in half in the last 75 years, with legal and illegal fishing, entrapment in fishing gear, and collisions with boats responsible for the most deaths.

Fun Facts

  • The whale shark is the biggest fish and shark in the world—the largest confirmed individual had a length of 12.65 m (41.5 ft.) and a weight of about 21.5 t (47,000 lb.).

  • Similar to the fingerprint of a human, the pattern of spots around the gill area are unique to each individual allowing researchers to identify individual sharks.

  • The only known predator of the whale shark is humans.

  • The whale shark can have between 300-350 rows of teeth at one time.

  • Females can have up to 300 shark pups at one time!

Why are they endangered?

Whale sharks are highly valued on international markets. Demand for their meat, fins and oil remains a threat to the species, particularly by unregulated fisheries. They are victims of   the accidental capture in fishing gear. The biggest threat however, is the trade of whale shark parts including their fins which are used in traditional Chinese medicine.

Status

Vulnerable

Sources

Whale shark swimming on the Ningaloo Reef, Western Australia