Swimming With Whale Sharks

photo: National Geographic

With its massive size, distinctive features, and docile manner, it is quite simple to spot a whale shark in an underwater crowd.

If you are ever fortunate enough to swim side by side with one of these gentle giants, its sheer size will remind you that you are swimming with the biggest fish in the sea. Whale sharks typically grow up to thirty-three feet long and can weigh as much as 50,000 pounds! So, like I said: hard to miss.

Although its name and benign nature may have you convinced that you are swimming with a whale, you should know that in fact, you are swimming with a shark. Don’t be alarmed though! Whale sharks feed mainly on the microscopic plankton, eggs, and krill that inhabit the water around you. With a multi-gallon gulp of water, the oversized, elliptical mouth slowly filters out tiny organisms which somehow sustain this beautiful, colossal life.

The markings of this fish are among the most impressive oceanic decorations. Mixed-media patterns of stripes and spots are as unique to each animal as fingerprints are to humans. Whale sharks are grey in color but often appear teal as shades of aquamarine reflect from the water onto their bodies. Their bellies are a creamy white and often bear distinct scars from attacks or getting caught in fishing nets. By snapping photos and observing these unique scars and patterns, scientists are able to unobtrusively study these sharks and their individual behaviors.

Whale sharks like to gather in warm, tropical waters that are rich in nutrients such as plankton and krill and while they do have tiny teeth, they have no interest in eating meat of the human variety.

While we know many facts about whale sharks, little is known about how they reproduce. In fact, scientists still have no strong clues of how or where they mate or give birth. The closest that man has yet come to unlocking this mystery was upon observing a pregnant female who was caught in Taiwan in the mid-90s. Other than that, studying the reproductive phase of a whale shark’s life has proved next to impossible.

You don’t have to be a marine biologist or a diver to experience swimming with the biggest fish in the sea. Many tourism companies offer short boat rides into bays where you can pop on some flippers and a snorkel and hop right in. Feel free to swim alongside the giants but remember that you are a visitor in their home. It is important that people keep their distance from all marine life, not only for the safety of the swimmer but also for the safety of the animal. It is important not to put any stress on the animals and keep your oily hands to yourself. Whale sharks and most other marine life sport a protective coating on their skin which helps keep out foreign bacteria. The last thing they need is to get an infection caused by sunscreen-drenched hands giving them a backrub. This rules out riding the animal, too. Lastly, please don’t feed the marine life or any wildlife for that matter. When we train animals to rely on us for food, it teaches them bad habits which can result in injury and sometimes even death. The best way to enjoy nature up close is with all due respect.

If you want to learn more about the stunning whale shark, check out this video by National Geographic.

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