Known as the world’s largest fish, the whale sharks can grow to a length of up to 65 feet and can grow as heavy as 75,000 pounds. No wonder they are the heavy weights of the ocean. With a huge body that is streamlined to help them glide across the ocean and beautiful spotted and stripped patterns, these huge sea mammals are really a wonderful sight!
The spots and stripes of a whale shark are not just a beauty addition; they are, in fact, the unique identification mark of these creatures. Just like our finger prints! Each whale shark has a unique pattern of spots and stripes that makes them easily identifiable from the others of their species.
Despite being the largest creature in the ocean and having a diet that justifies their huge size, whale sharks consume some of the smallest creatures in the ocean. Their diet predominantly consists of small fishes, plankton, and other crustaceans.
Don’t get deceived by their robust outward appearance; whale sharks do not have a strong skeletal system on the inside. In fact, they fall under the category of cartilaginous fishes! Their skeletons are made up of flexible yet tough tissues known as cartilage. Although when alive, their huge layers of fat and skin protect them; after death their skeletons disintegrate quickly! One reason we don’t have fossilized bones to study their predecessors.
Whale sharks are mostly found in warm waters; so you can find them in the Pacific, Atlantic, and the Indian Oceans. That about pretty much covers the ocean space on Earth! And when it comes to these large mammals, the females throw around their weight more, literally! The female of the species is larger than the male.
Whale sharks are mostly lone creatures and tend to travel great distances across the ocean in search of food. But during some seasons they congregate in places where food is abundant, travelling great distances from various ends of the earth. How they track the presence of food is something scientists are still trying to find out!
If you are trying to track whale sharks in the ocean, go to places where tunas thrive. Considered one of the fastest moving fishes in the ocean, tunas travel with whale sharks – one of the slowest creatures in the ocean! But this friendship is actually a mutually beneficial camaraderie. Sharks help the tuna find food and tunas help the shark get their share of small fishes!
Whale sharks are also categorized as mammals as they give birth to young ones. However, they do not provide constant nutrition to their growing embryos as most mammals do! These embryos are solely dependent on the yolk, which is their only source of nutrition till they emerge out as a pup.
Whale sharks have a skin that is about 5 inches in thickness. This acts as a protection against most natural predators. However, this defense mechanism is insufficient when it comes to protecting them from human predators. Another mortal threat to these endangered species is the giant ships that strike them while sailing across the seas.
Thanks to Hollywood, the word ‘shark’ brings images of a deadly predator to our minds. However, whale sharks are gentle creatures! And thanks to their slow movement; swimming, diving, and snorkeling with whale sharks has become a big tourist attraction in many parts of the world.
Whale sharks filter feed – they swallow large quantities of water along with schools of smaller fish and they filter the water out! While other whales do this by swimming across the waters with their mouths wide open, whale sharks are capable of feeding even while standing in one place. This is what gives the appearance that these creatures are standing on their tail!