By Marla Lise
This 3m long baby was seen swimming of our coasts in August last year. The last time a whale shark was spotted in these waters was 1964 … and then it was shot. Unfortunately, the local fishermen were not so thrilled to have a fish the size of a small torpedo near their nets.
Psst, did you say 3m long baby?
Yes, baby! These fish can grow up to 12m long and there have been speculations that one measured 18.8m.
Why do you keep calling it a fish if it’s a whale shark?
Whale sharks are fish! Unlike whales, that are mammals, whale sharks (Rhincodon typus)
come from the Rhincodontidae family. For their gargantuan size, these friendly giants eat only plankton, which are organisms that you need a microscope to see. Their huge mouths act like a sieve, filtering gallons upon gallons of water in a single swallow, allowing them to consume almost half a million calories at once. In order to get mouthfuls like these though, whale sharks need to be constantly on the move, looking for huge swarms of plankton that move with the ocean currents. Because of this, they cover vast distances as they migrate around the world. The largest journey by a whale shark ever recorded was 20,000km. Females have been known to swim 67km in a single day.
In 2013, I got the opportunity to volunteer at the Whale Shark & Oceanic Research Center in Utila, Honduras. Utila was an amazing place to be during the whale shark season. Everyday you’d hear people coming back from dives saying that they saw these amazing creatures. I finally got the opportunity to see one but I wasn’t as happy as I thought I would be. When a captain sees a whale shark, he immediately calls other boats. They are paid an extra sum of money for whale shark sightings. Before long, the animal is surrounded by boats, engines pumping diesel into the water and excited swimmers waiting to jump in for that IG worthy picture of them swimming next to a whale shark. This is my only photo of the animal. NGOs like the WSORC make sure that these occurrences do not happen frequently. They put in place guidelines and education programs so that tourists and captains remain responsible.
The whale shark brings in big bucks in the name of tourism. One of the more famous places to go see them in Asia is in Oslob, Philippines. You will see many, many forums telling you not to go to this place and not to swim with the whale sharks but many people still do because it is almost guaranteed that you will see the animals. Tour operators hand feed the animals, making sure that you get that photo that you travelled all the way there for.
Feeding the animals and surrounding them with boats disrupt ecosystem food chains and migration routes. Once the whale sharks know there is a constant supply of food somewhere, they have no reason to travel elsewhere, causing a break in the food chain. The animals are also constantly hit by propeller blades from boats and can be seen with cuts on their bodies. Approaching boats in hopes to be fed is another dangerous problem. Whale sharks start to swim closer to fishing boats, expecting to be fed and end up being caught and killed and their fins and gills sold. There have been studies that have linked whale and porpoise strandings to noise pollution. There is inconclusive evidence to confirm that sharks have similar issues, but one study showed that they were less inquisitive to baits. Noise pollution could also be moving whale sharks off their normal migration routes.
In 2016, the IUCN listed this species as endangered. In 2014, an article by ABC stated that 600 whale sharks a year were sent to just one factory in China. We are easy to point the fingers at China, but whale shark oils are also prized by the Western market. Closer to home, a famous market called Tanjung Luar in Indonesia, has repeatedly been criticized for the amount of sharks that are killed and sold there. Whale sharks thankfully are the only species that the government has protected but this doesn’t say much for any of the other species of sharks that have their blood spilled on these market floors. Whale sharks like many other species of shark have low reproduction rates and have to be around 25 years old before they start having offspring. 30% of the 117 shark species in Indonesia are already considered endangered because of these low rates.
It’s pretty amazing that a whale shark decided to pay us a visit here but why? Was it scared by boats? Dropped off the back of a fishing trawler? Lost because of the noise in the ocean? Was there not enough food? Are the ocean currents starting to shift due to climate change? Will we be seeing more of these creatures soon?
2020, will you never cease to amaze us?
About Marine Stewards
Marine Stewards is a non-profit whose mission is to promote a healthy fishing culture through sustainable fishing guidelines, education and outreach.
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About the author:
Marla is an ocean lover with a passion for marine conservation