In earlier times, the local fisherman of Triton Bay, Indonesia, used to hunt the local whale shark population. These days, the fisherman still rely on the whale sharks for their livelihood but have found that they are a much more valuable resource when left to live in peace.
The whale sharks of Triton Bay are a regular sight, as they come to the bay to feed on the baitfish left in the bagans - the local fishing nets that are created from nets and lights. Bagans are put out to sea to catch fish, shrimp, and squid, and are left for days, and sometimes months, before being hauled back in.
The local whale sharks have adapted by learning to visit the fishing areas in the early morning when they can suck sustenance off the nets and enjoy an easy feed.
It's the whale sharks' resourcefulness that has led to a new symbiotic relationship developing between the fisherman and the sharks. The sharks are a massive drawcard for the cruise ships and tourist industry, with many visitors eager to dive and swim with these gentle giants of the deep.
Fisherman working the area sound the alert when the whale sharks arrive, allowing the visitors to quickly make their way over and enjoy the majesty of these graceful giants in their natural habitat. In return, the fisherman earn themselves a reward for their timely service. It’s a symbiotic relationship that benefits the sharks, the fisherman, the tourists who get to enjoy the beautiful marine life, and the environment.
The Joy of Swimming with Whale Sharks
Whale sharks are not your average sharks. For one thing, they are huge. While there are many decently sized shark species in the ocean, only the whale sharks can reach a size that is equivalent to a small bus. For another thing, they are filter feeders, which means they open their massive maws to hoover up any plankton and baby fish that are in their path.
They may be the biggest fish in the ocean, but these supersized ocean dwellers don't show an ounce of aggression, and coming face to face with a whale shark will be one of the most awe-inspiring events of your life.
Whale sharks are utterly unperturbed about sharing their habitat with humans, although they are aware of a human's presence and generally seem to keep their distance. However, caution is warranted when entering the water with such enormous creatures.
There are no Indonesian environmental regulations keeping visitors in check in regard to the distance they should keep between themselves and the sharks. However, it is recommended that you do not touch them.
Whale sharks are deceptively majestic as they move through depths, and, despite their bulk, they glide through the deep blue with power and grace.
While they appear to propel themselves lazily through the water, a great deal of force is required to keep such a massive fish moving, and a sweep of their large tail might feel like a slap from a giant hand, so they are best admired from a short distance. Another handy tip is to make sure you are always above them, as they are known to dive without warning after feeding.
Interesting Facts About Whale Sharks
While it might be enough for you to appreciate the magnificent splendor of a whale shark up close, any encounter with a wild animal is a lot more enjoyable when you know something about them. So before, you head off to your first whale shark rendezvous, check out these fascinating facts about the world's biggest fish.
- Females birth live young
- They can grow to enormous lengths
- They have thousands of tiny teeth
- Whale shark skin patterns are unique
- They are migratory and travel thousands of miles
- They have tough, thick hides, but vulnerable underbellies
- We aren't too sure about how old they can get
Whale Sharks Birth Live Young
The fact that whale sharks birth live young is a relatively recent discovery. In 1995 a female was discovered with 300 unborn embryos in her uteri, which means the species is ovoviviparous. This term describes an animal that carries the eggs inside the body until they hatch and exit the womb fully formed.
Whale Sharks can Grow to Enormous Lengths
Whale Sharks Can Grow to 40 feet (12 meters), or about the length of six adults laying head-to-toe. Naturally, it's a challenge to weigh such a massive beast, but researchers at the Okinawa Churaumi Aquarium have given it a go. The largest they have on record is a 30-footer that came in at over 7-tons. You can expect whale sharks in the wild to weigh even more.
Whale Shark Mouths Contain Thousands of Teeth
Even though whale sharks only dine on tiny life-forms like plankton, sardines, and baby fish, their wide maws are still home to thousands of tiny teeth. More than 300 rows contain 20 to 30 teeth each, which equates to well over 3,000. The food is swallowed whole, however, and long, cartilaginous bars called gill rakers form a mesh-like network that lets water out but keeps captured food moving towards the digestive system.
The Dots on a Whale Shark’s Skin are Unique
The thousands of dots on a whale shark’s skin are unique to every creature, much like human fingerprints.
Whale Sharks Migrate
Whale shark populations are generally found between latitudes 30° N to 35° S, making them a tropical to sub-tropical species. They do move around quite a lot within those borders, though, and are known to travel more than 8,000 miles. Scientists are yet to unravel the full mystery, but part of the reason may be that they follow the swarms of plankton.
The Whale Sharks Skin is Very Tough in Places
The hide of a whale shark can be over 4-inches thick in places and is covered in tooth-like scales called denticles. Plus, whale sharks can clench their muscles to make their hide even tougher. Their underbelly is quite soft by comparison, which is why some whale sharks will turn their bellies away from divers.
Whale Sharks Could Live a Long Time
This fact about whale sharks is one about which we aren't too sure. We are aware that they reach maturity by age 30 or so, but we don't know how old they can get. Some researchers have estimated that whale sharks may live to age sixty, but others put the figure at 100 or even 150 years.