Size Does Not Matter
A whale shark can be massive in size, comparable to a whale, hence the name, whale shark. The largest confirmed, and recorded measurements of a whale shark are, 12.65 m (41.5 ft), and 21.5 t (47,000 lbs). These numbers do not do the massive size justice. This length can be compared to that of a RV, or recreational vehicle, commonly used for camping. Being next to one of these massive pieces of machinery can be intimidating on the roadway, and the same can be said of the whale shark in the ocean.
The average adult is approximately the size of a school bus, and yes their size can be intimidating, but whale sharks are also referred to as gentle giants. The mere size of the shark’s mouth, can be enough to make even the most experienced diver, stay ashore. However, one should not fret when a whale shark is in the area. Although it is discouraged against, divers have been know to catch a ride on the massive fish. Many divers have even experienced playfulness with juveniles.
The appetite of these gentle giants can be huge, however, their diet mainly consists of plankton, and smaller marine species. They are filter feeders, which basically means they hold their mouth open, while swimming towards their prey. The gills act like a filter, and the whale shark is capable of swallowing massive amounts of plankton, at one time. Some species are known for the massive size of their teeth, but not the whale shark. Their teeth are small, but what they lack in size, they make up for in numbers. Adult whale sharks can have approximately 3,000 teeth, at any given time.
How Do Whale Sharks Compare To Other Filter Feeding Sharks?
There are also other species of sharks that are filter feeders. These other species are…
- Basking Sharks- The second largest fish in existence, which is also a filter feeder.
- Megamouth Sharks- An incredibly rare species, which is the smallest of the three filter feeding sharks.
Researchers have estimated that basking sharks can reach sizes of up to 33 ft in length, but records indicate that they can grow up to 26 ft (7.92 m). This is small in comparison to the whale shark, but is huge, compared to other marine life. Due to similar fins, gills, and body styles, these magnificent creatures are often mistaken for Great White Sharks. However, the mouth of this massive shark only grows to about 3 ft (0.91 m) wide.
As stated above, Megamouth Sharks are the smallest of the three filter feeding shark species. Females tend to grow to about 16 ft (4.87 m), while males grow to approximately 13 ft (3.96 m). This is much smaller in comparison to both of the other species, but their mouths grow to an average of 4 ft (1.21 m) wide. There is much to still be learned about Megamouth Sharks, as only 55 confirmed sightings have taken place in history. It is believed that the Megamouth has many of the same feeding techniques as basking sharks, although some researchers believe they may also have feeding techniques comparable to those of whale sharks.
Megamouth sharks, and whale sharks prefer warmer, more tropical waters. Meanwhile, basking sharks prefer cooler waters. All three species move rather slowly, averaging between 1-3 mph. They move along at a leisurely pace, filtering unsuspecting food into their mouths. The most unique difference between the 3 is the Megamouth’s luminescent mouth. Unsuspecting prey will swim towards the light, not realizing that they are in danger. However, all three filter feeder sharks are relatively gentle.
Whale Sharks Deserve More Attention
Whenever anyone thinks about a shark species, whale sharks are not likely at the top of their list. Thanks to Hollywood, Great White Sharks are the species that gets the most attention. Unfortunate side effects of that attention are bad reputations to all sharks. The size difference between the two species is uncanny. The power, speed, and teeth are key characteristics of the Great White, but the mere size of the whale shark is enough of an intimidation factor.
Obtaining more information about the world’s largest fish is of the utmost importance. The entire species is listed as vulnerable, but learning more about them, will ensure that the species remains atop the oceanic kingdom. Over-fishing, slow reproduction, and even vessel strikes contribute to the loss of these creatures. However, by learning more about migration patterns and mating habits, humans will have the ability to help the species survive.
Shark sanctuaries have been established in different locations throughout the world. The Bahamas, the Marshall Islands, and the Maldives have all set up sanctuaries, which provide protection to species within the area. These sanctuaries allow researchers to study whale sharks, as well as other species, within their natural environment. This is a crucial step in finding, and repairing, damage that has been done to the species.
If It Looks Like A Whale, And It Smells Like A Whale, Does Not Make It A Whale
Although whale sharks may look like whales, they are completely unrelated. They are merely related by name, and by similar features, such as size. Everyone has heard the saying, “If it looks like a duck, and sounds like a duck, it must be a duck”, but that could be further from the truth in this instance.
One unique characteristic of a whale shark is that each one has its own unique spot pattern. This can be compared to fingerprints on any human. Therefore, they are unique individual beings, and classifying them as anything different, should be a crime. Whale sharks are members of the fish family, while whales are classified as mammals. Classifying them as the same is like calling a cat, a feline.
Diving with sharks is never recommended, but if one wishes to explore the depths, with a companion, a whale shark is likely your safest choice.