The whale shark is one of the world’s gentlest giants. Slow swimming filter-feeders, Rhincodon typus currently holds the record for the largest fish species in the entire world. Whale sharks can reach incredible lengths of up to 40 feet, and can weigh up 20 metric tons. While intimidating in size, a whale shark’s diet consists primarily of plankton. Unlike most of their feared cousins, whale sharks use a method called filter-feeding to catch their prey. They swim with their mouths wide open (almost five feet!) in order to catch large amounts of their tiny prey. The whale shark is only one of three species of shark that filter-feed.
The whale shark sports a flattened head with a blunt snout and massive mouth. They are easily identified by their incredulous size, and by their coloration. The back and sides of a whale shark are grey or brown, with a white belly. However, they are known for the white spots and pale vertical and horizontal stripes along their back.
These marine behemoths live in tropical and warm temperate seas. They generally swim the open oceans alone, though they tend to gather in areas that are abundant with plankton or other prey. This makes them a prime tourist attraction, as they are often gentle enough to swim beside quite safely. Areas such as Oslob, Cebu are extremely popular for the high density of whale sharks that swim by their shores. This, however, has recently proven detrimental to the species.
The amount of attention and contact that the whale shark has been receiving has ruined migratory patterns and greatly increased the density of whale sharks in a very localized area. Given a stable feeding source by those would seek to promote the tourism industry, whale sharks tend to stay within a certain area instead of roaming the vast seas. Proximity to large boats, and consequently, propellers, has led to a high mortality rate of the gentle giant. Currently listed as “vulnerable” by the IUCN, conservationists and environmental scientists have been clamouring for better treatment of the whale shark.
Despite the amount of tourist attention the whale shark has received, surprisingly little is known of their mating and pupping patterns. It was only in recent years that more research has been conducted on them.
Here’s an interesting couple of facts to end on: in the Philippines, the whale shark is known as butanding. In Vietnam, the whale shark is revered as a deity called Cá Ông, which literally translates as “Sir Fish”.