7 Facts About Whale Sharks You Won't Believe!

7 Facts About Whale Sharks You Won't Believe!

Posted by Ellie Hutchin on 29th Aug 2017

Whale sharks are beautiful spotted fish which scientists believe evolved between 35 – 65 million years ago. They are a mysterious species as they have not been researched a great deal, but what we do know is that they are vulnerable to extinction. Becoming a whale shark volunteer means that you could contribute invaluable efforts to the conservation of such an enchanting species and expanding whale shark knowledge. Before you do however, make sure your existing knowledge is up to scratch, and don’t forget, the Mafia Island Whale Shark Conservation Project is on offer this month with a massive 33% discount!

whale shark in mafia island

Scientists believe they could live to be over 100 years old!

There is a lack of research into this enchanting species, and according to National Geographic, their average lifespan in the wild is estimated at around 70 years. However, whale sharks reach sexual maturity between the ages of 25 – 30 years old and thus, are considered to be late bloomers. Furthermore, coming into sexual maturity this late in life is suggestive evidence, scientists believe, that these magnificent creatures could live for over 100 years!

No, they aren’t whales… They’re actually the biggest fish on earth!

I know the name may be deceiving, but these gracious giants are definitely not whales. They get this name due to their diet and how they ‘filter feed’ which is the same as many species of whale. Furthermore, this defining characteristic makes them the biggest fish on earth, even bigger than great whites! They can grow to be around 40 feet in length (roughly the same as a bus!?) whereas their iconic apex predator relatives grow between 16 – 20 feet. While it is true the great white is the largest predatory fish, the whale shark is not actually a predator, which brings me onto my next point…

whale shark

They are the misunderstood, gentle giants of the deep…

Whale sharks are very docile and completely harmless to humans, and you can even swim with them on one of our projects as part of research into their conservation. Whale sharks eat plankton (surprise, surprise just like whales!) and are not classed as a predatory fish.

volunteer abroad

Females could produce multiple litters from just one mating!

In 2010, a study revealed that it is possible that female whale sharks can store sperm, which can later be used to fertilise eggs, even after a litter has already been fertilised. Confusing as it may be, fertilised embryos were saved from a female whale shark in 1995 which were all at different stages of development, but tests showed that the embryos almost certainly all had the same father.

As previously mentioned, there is such a lack of knowledge regarding these creatures, and females seem to be the most elusive of the species. Most of the knowledge acquired has been from juvenile males who have congregated to feed in coastal areas. Spotting a female whale shark is hard enough, but a pregnant one? Only the spirits know. It seems to be that a pregnant female has not been spotted since 2012, when the BBC reported the rescue of a pregnant whale shark on the gulf of California. Prior to this, recorded sightings of these ladies dates as far back as 1995. Furthermore, scientists were very cautious to draw conclusions about the species as a collective based one just one shark but it is extremely likely they give birth to multiple litters at different times.

Juvenile whale sharks, as docile and vulnerable as their elders, often become prey for other sharks and orcas, so while a female may birth more than 300 pups at a time, survival rates are devastatingly low; females giving birth to multiple litters at different times could increase their survival rate which could be why they have their very own, built in sperm banks.

whale shark volunteer

Whale sharks are ovoviviparous

Whale sharks are fish and not mammals because their young come from eggs, however, they do not actually lay these eggs. The eggs are fertilised within the uterus of the mother, and hatch into embryos in there too! Once they are developed enough the mother then ‘gives birth’ to her live young.

Their mouths can be up to 5 feet wide!

Oh, the irony: huge fish, huge mouth yet it consumes such a tiny sized diet! I suppose being a filter feeder/collector of plankton, the more room you have to stock up with the better!

Each whale shark is unique...

The spot pattern on one whale shark, will never be the same as the others which means you can identify individuals. This is helpful to conservationists in many ways, one fore example because they can then work out if a particular giant is known to an area or not, which is a good indication of population numbers in the area. The presence of Whale sharks suggests the marine area contains plankton as this is what they feed on, and in turn, this data supplies information regarding the overall health of the ocean.

So, there you have it, our top 7 most fascinating facts about the elusive whale shark. Check out the Mafia Island Whale Shark Conservation Project on our website - don't forget, there's 33% off until the end of this month!

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