Whale Shark

The Whale Shark is one of the best known sharks by children, whether they know it or not, as it is believed to be the fish that gulped the Bible character, Jonah, into its belly, where he remained for a few long days. This is the biggest fish in the ocean and must not be confused with a whale, which is a mammal. Its mouth alone can reach a width of up to 1.5 metres, only slightly less than the height of the average woman.

The Whale Shark averages a length of about seven to eight metres, although some specimens have reached approximately 14 metres in length, and weighs several tons. The males are smaller than their female counterparts. It is characterised by its mouth’s positioning being at the front of the head (as opposed to underneath as with most species), a flattened head, small eyes and two pairs of dorsal and pectoral fins. The skin is dark grey with light yellow stripes and spots in random formation.

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Whale shark - Rhincodon typus - with snorkeler.

This skin can reach up to 10 centimetres in thickness. In addition, three ridges that run along either side of the body are key identifying features (if the sheer size of this astounding creature left any room for confusion).

Many divers are relieved to hear of this shark’s lack of interest in all things meaty. In fact, its diet comprises mainly of plankton and the small bony fish that are able to get through the large filters in its mouth. Its teeth are somewhat underdeveloped as they are seldom used. Still, there are approximately 3 000 teeth in its ample jaws. When feeding, the Whale Shark swims through the ocean with its mouth open, sucking in water and whatever is in that body of water at the time. This is passed through rakers, which sieve out anything that is small enough to be consumed (usually plankton). The remainder of the water is passed out through the gills.

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Whale Sharks prefer the warm waters, particularly those around the equator, and they generally travel alone. They tend to stick to the surface of the water, where the temperature is higher and the visibility better. The only major body of seawater in which these awesome specimens are not found is the Mediterranean Sea. They move slowly and propel themselves by swaying their entire bodies, as opposed to just moving their tails.

Whale Sharks give birth to live pups after they have matured as hatchlings inside the mother, making these ovoviviparous animals. Pups are about 60 centimetres long at birth and will only reach sexual maturity at about 30 years of age. Whale Sharks live for between 70 and 150 years.

Divers have frequently delighted in their experience with Whale Sharks. Not only do the sharks pose no threat, but they actually display a level of curiosity and playfulness with the divers.

The population numbers of the Whale Shark remain unknown and, due to the fact that fishermen will target this shark in certain areas, it is classified as being “Vulnerable”.

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