My first time seeing a whale shark was legendary! I jumped in the water and was so lost in the open ocean that I had no idea until last minute that a huge, 7 meter whale shark was swimming right at me. I spastically swam as fast as I could out of the way – barely remembering how to swim. Thankfully, I was not the only spaz; everyone does this the first time they see a 7 meter shark swim at them in the open ocean with its mouth open.
It is difficult to explain what it feels like to swim with such a magical creature. They are completely harmless unless you swim too close to its tail which would be similar to the human being a ping pong ball and the shark’s tail being the paddle. The blue-gray scales and the white spots are mesmerizing and perfect camouflage in the big blue ocean. The shark’s spot patterns are unique to each individual whale shark, just like a human finger print. Swimming along with a large adult shark makes you feel so insignificant and tiny, yet because the shark lets you into his world without a fuss, you feel closer to nature than you have ever been before.
Whale sharks are the world’s largest fish which can reach up to 20 meters in length and weigh as much as 34 tons. They can live anywhere between 20-60 years old reaching sexual maturity at about 30 years old or 6-8 meters in length. They get their names because they are a shark that is the size of a whale. Two weeks after I heard about the whale sharks at Australia’s Ningaloo Reef, I left the Great Barrier Reef and traveled across the country where the outback meets the ocean to apply for any opening as a Whale Shark Spotter. Thankfully, I passed the interview and physical tests required to hold this position. This required wildlife and diving experience along with keeping up with a shark moving between 1-4 km/ph and diving down to at least 10 meters below sea level. Of course they expected all of this with high energy, passion and enthusiasm!
Whale sharks are very elusive creatures, therefore researchers and whale shark spotters from all over the world are working together to collect data about their biology, behavior and interaction with tourists. While working with 3 Islands Whale Shark and Dive, I took 20 guests daily out past the Ningaloo Reef to swim with whale sharks while simultaneously collecting measurements, sexing the shark and looking for scars, bites or obvious markings to identify the shark. Most sharks I swam with were 5-9 meter females, mostly swimming without any care of us being there. Sometimes spotters help attach or collect tracking devices and cameras from the dorsal fins of the sharks. The data retrieved will tell researchers the depths and distances the sharks are capable of reaching. We discovered last year that these gentle giants can reach depths of over 980 meters. My favorite shark is a male resident shark named, “Stumpy” because he has a huge bite from another shark out of his dorsal fin which I think makes him look very tough and cool.
Whale sharks have traveled over 13,000 km in search for an upwelling, coral and fish spawns and plankton concentrations. They have thousands of tiny teeth arranged in more than 300 rows, but they neither bite, nor chew their food. Being filter feeders, whale sharks actively suck water into their meter wide mouths filtering food through their gill rackers and then expelling excess liquid out of their gills. There were many occasions where I witnessed a shark “coughing” out particles that have collected in the gill rackers.
The best day of my life so far was the day I swam in the middle of a coral spawn while four whale sharks and six devil rays were feeding around me! It was highly unusual since these sharks are typically solitary. Sharks were coming from each side and even from deep below me! I had to do the best I could to not get in their way while they were filter feeding the coral eggs and plankton around me. Whale Sharks throat tapers into a cone-like passion forcing food into the gill rackers for filtration so it is unlikely to I could have been sucked into a whale sharks mouth. With that being said, there was one crazy, young female whale shark that chased us around everywhere trying to eat the bubbles created from our fins when we were kicking away from her. She thought the bubbles were plankton and there was a few times that my leg was sucked into her mouth but thankfully it only lasted a second before the shark and I realized that isn’t normal and I calmly pulled my leg out. I want to stress, out of the average 3 whale sharks I swam with a day for the total of 5 months as a Spotter, I only came across 3 sharks that interacted with me.
It is still unknown how often whale sharks reproduce or even where they mate and give birth. What researchers do know is that females can hold up to 300 embryos at a time which is more than any other shark. So why are there so few whale sharks found in the ocean? Whale Sharks are listed under the IUCN’s list and Appendix II of CITES endangered list protecting them from being fished for whale shark meat and fins. Shark fin soup is in high demand and is the main reason why shark numbers are declining. Over 2 million tons of sharks are killed every year for shark fin soup! It blows me away that there are even sharks left to hunt. Thankfully, Hawaii is the first U.S state to ban the fishing and finning of sharks in July of 2012.
If you want to learn more about whale shark research and how to protect them from shark fin soup, please visit www.whaleshark.org.