As the largest fish in the sea, reaching lengths of 40 feet or more, whale sharks have an enormous menu from which to choose. Fortunately for most sea-dwellers—and us!—their favorite meal is plankton. They scoop these tiny plants and animals up, along with any small fish that happen to be around, with their colossal gaping mouths. They are one of only three species of filter feeding sharks.
Preferring warm waters, whale sharks populate all tropical seas. They are known to migrate every spring to the continental shelf of the central west coast of Australia. Adults are often found feeding at the surface, but may dive to 1000m.
Scientists believe that some individuals swim across entire oceans to arrive just in time for a plankton bloom or a mass spawning of fish or coral eggs – an amazing feat for a fish. As opposed to the other large sharks, which give birth to a small number of very large babies, whale sharks give birth to hundreds of very small babies (approximately 45 cm).
70 years - average lifespan in the wild
18 to 32.8 feet - their size
20.6 tons - their weight
Whale sharks are also unique in that they are covered with white spots, and every individual apparently has its own spot pattern. In fact, whale shark researchers utilize specialized computer software, originally designed for star mapping, to identify individual whale sharks from photos of their spot patterns.
Whale sharks are protected from fishing in many countries, but are in decline. They are currently listed as an endangered species. 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 also victims of bycatch, the accidental capture of non-target species in fishing gear.
Fortunately, a large tourism industry has been developed for viewing whale sharks in the wild, and their value alive is higher than their value to fishers. For that reason and because they are such impressive animals, most places around the world offer whale sharks complete legal protection.
Sources: nationalgeographic.com, worldwildlife.org, oceana.org
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