The Whale Shark is falsely named, as it is not a shark at all but is instead the world’s largest fish. Weighing up to 21 tons (47,000lb) and reaching a length of 12 metres (41ft) it’s in fact the biggest non-mammalian vertebrate, originating around 60 million years ago. Whale Sharks can look intimidating, cruising the open ocean with large mouths gaping open. The mouth is 1.5 metres wide and possesses 300 – 350 rows of tiny teeth, but the Whale Shark poses no threat to humans. They are strictly filter feeders, siphoning seawater for planktonic food with the help of five pairs of gills and multiple ‘filter pads’ in their mouths.
This filter feeding trait is shared with two shark species; the Basking Shark and Megamouth Shark. Each Whale Shark individual has its own unique pattern of yellow spots and stripes – akin to an Indigenous dot painting – with tiny eyes located on either side of its broad head. Whale Sharks are found in tropical and warm temperate oceans worldwide, and are estimated to live for 70 years. Whilst feeding they typically cruise close to the ocean’s surface, but have been recorded diving to depths of 1,800 metres (5,900 ft). They are a pelagic, migratory species, and aggregate in large numbers during their breeding season in various spots around the world, resulting in associated ecotourism (e.g. Ningaloo, WA). The species is listed endangered by the IUCN, threatened by fishing, vessel strikes, and the shark-finning trade.
Some cultures revere the Whale Shark as a deity. In Vietnam their name translates to ‘Lord Fish’. By law, snorkelers and divers have to keep their distance. People who touch them may be fined, or even go to jail !