10 Fun Facts About Whale Sharks!
It’s a whale. It’s a shark. It’s a whale shark!
Whale sharks are the largest sharks to be found. They live in warm waters all over the world, often swimming just below the surface. They have large, flattened heads, but small eyes about the size of golf balls, and barbels (which are like whiskers) around their nostrils. They have been around for 60 million years and can live for up to 100 years.
1. Big Fish!
The whale shark is not only the largest shark, it is the largest fish in the ocean and the largest backboned animal that isn’t a mammal. On average, adult whale sharks are 30 feet (9.1 meters) long, roughly the size of a school bus, and weigh 20,000 pounds (9072 kilograms) — as heavy as two elephants! The largest whale shark on record, though, was 41.5 feet (12.6 meters) long and weighed 56,000 pounds (25401 kilograms). Now you know how it got its name. Here’s a shark that can grow up to the size of a whale. In fact, it is even larger than a lot of whales.
2. Filter Feeders
What else do whale sharks have in common with whales, apart from size? Its feeding habits. Indeed, like many whales, the whale shark is a filter feeder, which means that it opens its mouth and sucks in a lot of water, then it closes its mouth and filters the water out gills so that only the food remains inside. What does it eat? Mostly plankton, algae, krill, small squid and crab larvae.
The whale shark is only one of three known filter-feeding sharks. The other two are the basking shark (the second-largest shark and second-largest fish in the ocean), and the megamouth shark.
3. Open Up!
In order to take in a lot of water and enough food to fill its belly, a whale shark has to open its mouth really wide. And guess what? It can open its mouth up to 5 feet (1.5 meters) wide. That’s large enough to swallow a small bathtub! A whale shark can filter through more than 1500 gallons (5678 liters) of water per hour.
When a whale shark opens its mouth, you will see its numerous teeth. It has even more teeth than the great white shark — up to 4000 teeth arranged in hundreds of rows. These teeth, however, are tiny and not at all sharp like the great white’s. Rather, they look like rasps.
4. Spot the Whale Shark
Whale sharks are beautiful creatures that have pale yellow spots and stripes on their bluish skin. Each whale shark has its own unique pattern of spots and stripes, just like giraffes have their own patterns of spots and we have our own fingerprints, so you can tell an individual whale shark by looking at the arrangement of its spots and stripes.
5. Just Keep Swimming…
Like great white sharks, whale sharks are ram breathers, which means they ram water through their gills, which in turn means that they have to keep swimming in order to keep breathing. If they stop moving, they will drown. Unlike great white sharks, though, which swim using their powerful tails and fins, whale sharks swim by moving their large, flattened bodies from side to side. They swim just below the surface of the water (to keep themselves warm) and they swim slowly — only up to 3 miles (4.8 kilometers) per hour.
6. Ready to Pup
Some sharks lay eggs. Some sharks give birth. The whale shark is somewhere in between. It is ovoviparous. This means that the female has eggs, but the eggs are never seen. Instead, they hatch inside the female and when the young are fully developed, they are born.
A female whale shark can have hundreds of eggs, but only about 300 of them fully develop into pups. The rest serve as food for those that survive. 300 is still a lot, so it’s no wonder that a pregnant whale shark looks so bloated she seems like she’s about to pop at any minute.
The newborn pups are about 2 feet (0.6 meters) long, which is small considering that newborn great white sharks are about 5 feet (1.5 meters) long. They grow slowly, too, only reaching their full size in about 30 years.
7. Watch Out for That Whale Shark!
Most fish swim away from boats, but not the whale shark. It has been observed that whale sharks are not afraid of boats, ships, fishing vessels or yachts. Unfortunately, this is a problem — whale sharks often collide with boats, particularly since they swim so close to the surface. In fact, many whale sharks are injured in boat collisions.
8. Swimming with the Smaller Fry
Whale sharks are solitary creatures and do not swim with other sharks. They are, however, often seen swimming with smaller fish, particularly remoras. Remoras (also known as suckerfish) can attach themselves to the skin of larger fish, and sometimes small boats and even scuba divers, getting a free ride. In the case of the whale shark, the ride is not exactly free, since the remoras repay the shark by cleaning its skin, getting rid of small parasites which also serve as their meal.
9. Can I Give You a Ride?
Remoras are not the only ones whale sharks give rides to. They have also been known to give rides to divers, and sometimes to play with them. Indeed, in spite of their massive size, whale sharks are gentle creatures which divers can approach without any fear, although scientists discourage this. There has never been an incident of a whale shark attacking a human, either.
10. Top of the Food Chain
Whale shark pups may be eaten by larger sharks and other large fish, such as blue marlins. Adult whale sharks, however, have no predators apart from killer whales, though even killer whales rarely prey on them, preferring other kinds of sharks. The greatest threat to whale sharks are humans, who hunt them for their meat and fins, which fetch a high price. Currently, the whale shark is classified as Vulnerable to Extinction, but still has a population large enough that it is not considered Endangered.
Whale Shark Videos
The YouTube video below contains a playlist of 5 videos to watch and enjoy, the list of videos featured is underneath.
- 65-Foot Shark by NationalGeographic – The world’s largest shark feeds on some of the tiniest creatures.
- Whale Shark Encounter by NationalGeographic – See closeup video of divers swimming with a whale shark during a National Geographic Expeditions cruise in Baja California.
- Whale sharks: Big Fish, Big Pond by Richard Kern – Richard Kern swims with whale sharks off the coast of Mexico’s Yucatan Peninsula and tells us more about this beautiful shark.
- Scientists free a whale shark from a fishing net in Indonesia – Conservation International (CI) by ConservationDotOrg – Published on Jun 27, 2012. In Indonesia’s Cendrawasih Bay, whale sharks often congregate around bagan (lift net) fishing platforms to eat the small silverside baitfish that the fishers are targeting. Sometimes the sharks swim right into the nets and become entangled. Local fishermen are considering modifying the lift net design in a way that prevents the sharks from entering.
- Jonathan Bird’s Blue World: Whale Sharks of Holbox by BlueWorldTV – Jonathan travels to Holbox, Mexico in search of the massive whale shark—the world’s largest fish.