What is a Whale Shark?

Tricia Christensen
Tricia Christensen

The whale shark is the largest fish in the sea, and from its size, one would assume the most deadly. However, whale sharks are generally not interested in biting divers, though a hit from their tail might hurt a diver. They are huge, relatively passive animals that diet on plankton and krill. They’ve also been noted to be relatively ineffective swimmers.

Whale sharks are filter-feeders that eat microorganisms such as the water-flea plankton.
Whale sharks are filter-feeders that eat microorganisms such as the water-flea plankton.

The whale shark can be found in the waters surrounding Thailand, Australia, the Red Sea and around South Africa. Occasionally they will be found in smaller numbers around Baja California and Puerto Rico. The whale shark is usually solitary, and little is known about their breeding and reproductive habits.

However, scientists have occasionally have found groups of whale sharks living in close proximity to each other. This suggests that only some whale sharks are solitary. Younger sharks may perhaps school for better protection.

Ichthyologists estimate that whale sharks may reach an average age of sixty years, and a maximum size of about sixty feet (18.28m) in length. Their mouths are enormous and toothy. They sometimes are called basking sharks because they have been observed resting on the ocean floor with their mouths wide open filtering tiny fish through their 600 teeth.

Though it would be hard to mistake a whale shark for anything else because of its size, their markings and coloration are still interesting to observe. They are grey, blue or brown on their upper body, and defy fashion by having both horizontal and vertical stripes, and creamy polka dots on their mid body. This patterning is thought to help camouflage the whale shark from predators.

The whale shark does have predators, unfortunately mostly humans, who have hunted the shark. Many areas now forbid pursuing or capturing the whale shark, which is helping to restore the population. Other sharks may feed on the juvenile or whale shark young. For example, captured blue sharks have been found to be digesting young whale sharks.

The whale shark feeding pattern is fascinating. Their mouths act like vacuums, sucking in water and filtering in small species of fish. They have also been observed coughing up water, suggesting they may regurgitate excess water in this manner. The teeth of the whale shark are numerous but very tiny, so they do not rip and tear as do other large sharks like the Great White.

There are currently a few aquariums which have been able to successfully house a whale shark. Two aquariums in Japan have whale shark exhibits. The Georgia Aquarium in Atlanta has four whale sharks, two males and two females. They hope to be able to study the breeding and reproduction habits of the whale shark, as well as gender interaction in order to increase knowledge about this fascinating species of fish.

Tricia Christensen
Tricia Christensen

Tricia has a Literature degree from Sonoma State University and has been a frequent wiseGEEK contributor for many years. She is especially passionate about reading and writing, although her other interests include medicine, art, film, history, politics, ethics, and religion. Tricia lives in Northern California and is currently working on her first novel.

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What part of Puerto Rico have the whale sharks been spotted? I live on Culebra Island and would love to see one!

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