Whale Sharks – Did you know?
By Juan De Garay
Whale Sharks are about the size of a whale, but are not whales. They are similar to sharks, but are not sharks. Their Spanish nickname is “Domino Pez”, means “The Lady Fish”.
“The Gentle Giant” is even venerated as a God in the Vincentian religion where he is referred to as “Ca Ong” – Lord Fish
Whale Sharks inhabit warm tropical ocean waters. They are considered pelagic fish and can dive down to a depth of 700 meters, although they are commonly observed in shallow coastal areas.
They usually live in solitude, but they also gather in large groups of up to 800 individuals to feed in nourished areas containing a high concentration of food, for example, near Holbox Island in the north of the Yucatan Peninsula.
The whale shark has a flattened and elongated body. Huge fins helps them navigate the waters. Despite having a hydrodynamic body, whale sharks slowly move their body from side to side like a fish, with a speed of about 5 kms per hour, slowly enough to swim side by side with them to enjoy a good time!
Although, there have been stories and legends about sightings of 24-meter long and 43-ton whale sharks, the official record was recorded on 11 November 1947 near Pakistan, measuring 12 meters in length and weighing more than 21 tons.
Whale Sharks are called gentle giants, because despite their large size and shark-shape, their diet is mainly based on phytoplankton, macro algae, krill and sometimes also small crustaceans such as crabs and squid.
Although whale sharks have small teeth, they are not involved in the feeding process. To digest plankton and other micro foods this huge fish simply sucks hundreds of gallons of water that filters through a “gill comb” catching food there. It uses its nose to find concentrations of fish or plankton and does not need to swim to suck water but uses a pumping system, so that it can be found in a vertical position moving from top to bottom to ingest its food.
The shark and the man
Whale sharks mean no danger to the human being, in fact, it is an important example of coexistence with men. This animal is observed very often by divers and swimmers in Honduras, the Maldives, Galapagos, Ecuador, Thailand, the Philippines, Mexico and at many more places. It has become a focal point of the ecotourism industry, helping to generate awareness and action towards the care and protection of the environment.
Here in Mexico, we are fortunate to welcome this majestic fish every year on both coasts of the country. On the Mexican Pacific coast, they are practically all year, where they are frequently found on the outskirts of the bay of La Paz, Baja California Sur. In the Caribbean, we find them near the Island of Holbox, in the northeast of the state of Quintana Roo, between the months of May and September. Can´t wait!
Their reproductive habits have not been investigated thoroughly, but they are known to be ovoviviparous animals. This means that the female keeps the eggs in her belly until they break, and then the live, energy-filled offspring exits the belly, which is the same with most shark species. In June 1996, a female with 300 eggs in her belly was registered. The largest number of offspring ever recorded in a whale shark!
When the Shark is born it has a length of 40 to 60 centimeters. Although little is known about the growth rate, they are believed to reach sexual maturity at 30 years with about 9 meters and that they live up to 100 years.
State of conservation
Very little is known about the whale shark population, the reason it is considered a species in danger of extinction by the IUCN. All fishing, selling, importing and exporting for commercial purposes are prohibited and penalized. In Taiwan, this law has been applied since 2007, where approximately 100 whale sharks were killed annually.
The whale shark is a sacred animal, and we are hardly realizing it as a society. It is important to promote the care of the same and its natural habitat through safe, controlled, recorded sighting practices and taking of conscious measures and in harmony with the environment.
I invite you all to come to the Yucatan Peninsula to the State of Quintana Roo to appreciate this great guardian of the Mexican Caribbean, and thus to have a broader view of our role as active participants in social change for the care of our seas.
Click the following link if you want to learn more about the adventure of swimming with whale sharks in Mexico.