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Whale Shark (Rhincodon typus) - The Largest Fish in the World

By: C.M.Shorter

Whale Shark (Rhincodon typus)
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The Whale Shark is the largest fish in the world and, in spite of its name, it is not a “Whale” it is a “Shark”.  Given its name because of its sheer size, Rhincodon typus was first identified off the coast of South Africa in 1828.  Whale Sharks are in the order Orectolobiformes, often referred to as “Carpet Sharks” because many members in this family have carpet-like patterns.  Relatives within this classification number only 32 species including the Nurse Shark, Wobbegong and the Blind Shark, a nocturnal feeder that is not blind at all but has a habit of closing its eyes when caught or disturbed, thus its common name.  Unlike the Great White Shark propelling through the ocean like a torpedo, the marine giant Whale Shark is a slow moving plankton feeder, normally traveling no more than 5 mph it is relatively harmless to divers and, as always, best left undisturbed.

One of the largest creatures on earth the Whale Shark is primarily pelagic, living in open oceans & seas.  Whale Sharks are a migratory species navigating extreme distances with a wide-ranging oceanic territory.  Outside the open sea, they can often be found in shallow warm coastal waters, estuaries, and lagoons and have even been seen entering the mouths of some rivers.  It is believed Whale Sharks use olfactory senses to guide them on transoceanic migrations to target high concentrations of phytoplankton, krill or fish and their spawn & small nektonic organisms when at optimal levels.   Phytoplankton releases dimethylsulphide (DMS), a product of normal metabolism into the water and, like the Albatross and Petrels, Whale Sharks have the keen ability to locate phytoplankton.   It is interesting to note that when DMS is released into the atmosphere it is converted to sulfate molecules that act as cloud condensation nuclei.  Through photosynthesis, it is phytoplankton and terrestrial plants that are directly responsible for much of the Earth’s oxygen.  Water pollution of any kind, particularly toxic waste and raw sewage discharge, agricultural run-off, detergent phosphates, and pesticides have a detrimental effect on both the smallest and the largest of the world’s creatures.  These water pollutants also adversely affect humans who run the risk of ingesting contaminated seafood.

Whale Shark migrations are thought to be timed with blooms of these platonic organisms often governed by changes in water temperatures.  Attracted to warm waters they are found most commonly in a global band around the equator between 30 - 40° latitude.  These huge filter feeders are often seen Florida’s coastal waters and are found throughout the Florida Keys.  In fact, Whale Sharks span huge territory traveling throughout the temperate oceans and seas of the world.   Favorite congregation spots for Whale Sharks are at the world famous “Blue-Hole” dive site in Belize, Western Australia’s Ningaloo Marine Park, the Red Sea, Maldives and the Galapagos Islands.  Many Whale Sharks are sighted in the Galapagos Islands off the coast of Ecuador swimming with along with schools of Hammerhead Sharks, Dolphins, Sea Lions, Iguanas, Spotted Eagle Rays and many species of marine turtles where they are offered protection and studied by the Galapagos Conservancy (formerly known as the Charles Darwin Research Foundation).   Due to its docile nature, the Whale Shark is one of the top aquatic species draws for Ecotourism at these prime tourist destinations for scuba diving and open water PADI certification.

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