Some of us have dived with it while some of us have only seen it on TV or in the pages of books and magazines – we’re all familiar with the whale shark, but how much do we really know about the massive marine animal? Here are some fascinating whale shark facts to take home with you.
#1 Whale sharks are the largest fish in the world. They grow up to 12 metres in length and weigh 20,000 pounds on average (that’s roughly the size of two elephants).
#2 Despite their size, they feed on one of the sea’s tiniest creatures – plankton. They suck in small animals and plants with their gaping mouths and flush the water out through their gills.
#3 They’re one of the three filter feeders in the shark family; the other two being the basking shark – the second largest fish in the world – and the megamouth shark. Oddly enough, even though whale sharks are filter feeders, they have approximately 300 rows of small teeth in their mouth that serve no known function.
#4 Whale sharks may live up to 100 years of age, although no one can quite confirm this as very little is known about their life cycle.
#5 Unlike many other fish, whale sharks have skeletons made entirely of cartilage – a tough, flexible tissue – instead of bone.
#6 Each whale shark has a unique pattern of spots and markings on its back (just like human fingerprints), and this allows researchers to identify and track individuals. If you encounter a whale shark and own a camera or a GoPro, send your shots and stills to conservation organisations in the region of your dive destination to do your part and help with research.
#7 Whale sharks are listed as Vulnerable on the IUCN (International Union for Conservation of Nature) Red List. They are hunted in several parts of Asia and their meat and fins are considered highly valuable.
Where to swim with whale sharks in Asia Pacific
Choose destinations like Tubbataha (mid-March through mid-June) and Southern Leyte (November through April) instead of Oslob, which hasn’t been getting good press because of the lax rules when it comes to human-animal interaction.
Visit the iconic Richelieu Rock dive site (200 kilometres northwest of Phuket) between end January through April and you stand a good chance of seeing a whale shark or two.
Make a beeline for Ningaloo Reef in Western Australia from March through September – lots of operators offer whale shark tours and some even have a ‘guarantee policy’, so if you are one of the unlucky few who don’t get to see a whale shark, you get to come out on the boat again free of charge or get a partial refund.
Ari Atoll is your best bet for spotting whale sharks. Because it’s such a large area, you’re better off exploring the dive sites via liveaboard from December through May.
Whale sharks are seen in Cenderawasih Bay, West Papua, throughout the year. You’d probably be visiting the area via liveaboard and most operators run trips from June through October.