Massive and majestic, an encounter with a Whale Shark is a highlight for nature lovers and underwater enthusiasts. A boatload of people will erupt with joy and excitement at a sighting with everyone jostling for the best view, photographing and videoing. It’s not surprising, as a real life meeting with one of these animals is so rare and tantalising.
Divers and snorkelers relish meeting this elusive fish. It is a privilege to be in the water such a magnificent creature in its own terrain.
So it is tragic and infuriating to hear of these animals being put in peril.
The Whale Shark is the biggest fish in the world and can grow as large as 15 metres/45 feet in length. With a distinctive shape and body markings, it is at the same time, both graceful and formidable gliding through the waters. They are warm water animals and are found in most tropical oceans and follow their annual migration patterns. They feed on plankton and krill and do not pose a physical threat to humans.
Dangers facing Whale Sharks
Whale Shark fins are highly prized for shark fin soup in Asia. A single fin can fetch over $20,000 and there are numerous reports of fishermen cutting off the fins from the sharks and leaving them to die. The meat of these fish is also a delicacy so they are hunted for their meat as well as their fins in many parts of the world.
There are other threats. Despite their size, Whale Sharks are caught in fishing nets as bycatch and they are struck by outboard motors on boats. And there are immediate dangers. Conservation organisations monitoring the Gulf oil spill fear that Whale Sharks are at real risk as they rely on contaminated plankton for food.
Whale Sharks have some protection under international laws and treaties. Under the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species (CITES) Whale Shark products can only be traded and sold with special permits but illegal hunting takes a toll.
Because little is known about their migration and breeding patterns, monitoring Whale Sharks for protection can be difficult. What is known is that they grow and reproduce slowly (not reaching sexual maturity until they are 30 years old) so killing them indiscriminately can have a devastating effect on their numbers. A report from 2009 by scientists monitoring migrating populations in Ningaloo, Western Australia, found that the size of sharks were declining significantly due to hunting outside the region – most likely by Indonesian fishermen.
When the largest fish in the sea are in trouble, something is wrong.
What you can do
Don’t go to restaurants serving shark products. The biggest culprits are Chinese restaurants – with shark fin soups – but shark fin can sometimes be found in sushi/Japanese establishments.
Advise your friends and family to avoid shark-serving restaurants.
Support conservation organisations. You can do this through donations, subscriptions or purchases of products or you can get involved with projects such as sighting reports or – most exciting – there are projects that bring you face-to-face with Whale Sharks.
Let governments and tourism bodies know that these animals are worth more alive than dead. Support shark-friendly tourism and tell everyone how wonderful it is to see a Whale Shark.