Whether you’re new to the underwater world or have been diving for years, there’s a good chance that whale sharks feature high on your bucket list of underwater encounters. These mighty filter feeders are passive and perfectly harmless to dive with - and if you ask us, they’re pretty cute, too! But, despite their popularity, they are one of the world’s most mysterious species, with very little known about their lives. 

Read on to learn more about the secret world of whale sharks and how you can get directly involved with research aimed at their protection and preservation. 

The fascinating world of whale sharks

Don’t let the name confuse you - whale sharks aren’t whales at all. And, despite the fact that they’re the world’s biggest fish, surprisingly little is known about them. But in recent years, marine biologists have finally started to unlock some of their secrets!

Photographic identification with Galapagos Shark Diving
Photographic identification with Galapagos Shark Diving

What we know

Like other sharks, whale sharks have a skeleton made from cartilage instead of bone, and hundreds of teeth - although unlike their cousins, these aren’t used for feeding. A whale shark’s favourite meal is plankton - tiny microorganisms that they filter from seawater using their gills as huge sieves, much like their namesake.

Whale sharks are easily recognised by their distinctive upper pattern of white spots on a dark blue-grey background. Male whale sharks can be further distinguished by their twin claspers near the pelvic fins, which are absent in females. Most whale sharks reach a length of 12 metres, but unofficial records suggest they could grow to 20 metres or more and weigh as much as 20 tonnes. It has been estimated that these incredible ocean giants may live up to 80 - 130 years, finally reaching maturity in their 30s, much like most humans. And, this supersized animal has a massive home territory, spanning the planet’s entire equator. 

What we don’t know

Researchers are still working hard to solve many mysteries when it comes to the life of these giant animals. For example, nobody knows where the sharks spend the majority of their lives - or exactly where they migrate to and from - and it is unclear how deep they dive. We also don’t know how they track plankton or how they return to the same reliable locations, year after year, to gorge alongside dozens of other individuals. 

Researchers know that female sharks give birth to fully formed live pups that hatch from their eggs prior to birth - a process known as ovoviviparity. Up to 300 sharks can be born at one time, each between 40 and 70 centimetres in length. But, all of this information was gathered from one captured female, and virtually nothing is known about whale shark mating or gestation. In fact, pupping - whale shark birth - has never been observed! This lack of information leaves us without any real clues when it comes to the complete life cycle of these gentle ocean giants.

Where to see whale sharks

While whale sharks do have a worldwide warm-water territory, you can’t see them everywhere. Instead, they are most commonly sighted in areas where they congregate to feed. 

In the western hemisphere, this includes destinations around the Hammerhead Triangle, including Malpelo, Cocos, and the Galapagos Islands. The sharks can also be seen on both coasts of Mexico, with seasonal encounters nearly guaranteed in La Paz, Baja California and the Caribbean  islands of Isla Mujeres and Holbox. Lucky divers and snorkellers might also come across them in Socorro, the Honduras Bay Islands, and Belize.

In the Maldives, Hanifaru Bay boasts an incredible seasonal gathering, with whale sharks gathering alongside manta rays to feed in the shallows. Year-round sightings are also possible in South Ari Atoll, particularly around Maamigili which lies at the atoll’s southern tip.

Like other places around the globe, Indonesian whale sharks can be found where the feeding is good - and uniquely, this is often around traditional fishing platforms known as bagans. These floating platforms can be found in Triton Bay and Cenderawasih Bay in West Papua, and other remote regions such as the isolated Derawan Archipelago off the coast of Kalimantan.

Large numbers of whale sharks are also seen in Western Australia, especially around Ningaloo Reef. Not to mention the Red Sea’s annual concentration in Djibouti and chance sightings around Ras Mohammed National Park, as well as passing encounters in Thailand’s Similan Islands and Koh Tao. But, even if you don’t have any of these travel destinations on your radar, don’t get discouraged. These supersized filter feeders can turn up literally anywhere that plankton blooms are found!

Whale shark research and citizen science

Sharks around the world are at risk, and despite their size, whale sharks are no exception. So, it’s never been more important for researchers to learn all that they can about this extraordinary species. Unlocking the secrets to their mating, migrations, and mysterious life cycle could hold the secrets to saving the entire species! But, the worlds’ oceans are massive, and there are only so many scientists. So that’s where you come in…

Using a range of methods - from good old fashioned photo comparison to technology originally designed for NASA’s Hubble telescope - researchers are taking images provided by everyday scuba divers and putting them to good use. Each whale shark is identified by its unique spots and markings, much like a fingerprint. And, as more pictures are collected, scientists are compiling them into a massive database, with information on individual sharks, such as where and when they were seen. 

Identifying specific whale sharks allows experts to track their seasonal migrations and gather other information based on their size, location, and physical condition. It also means you can often find out exactly which animal you’re encountering underwater. How cool is that? 

How can I get involved?

Whale shark research in the Maldives
Whale shark research in the Maldives

Contributing to these programmes is easy - any time you encounter a whale shark in the water, take as many detailed photos of its markings as possible and submit them to the database at The Whale Shark Wildbook. But, collecting whale shark photography isn’t the only way you can get involved in research.

Feel like getting more hands-on? Citizen science efforts all around the world are currently accepting volunteer divers just like you. And, ZuBlu is now offering a wide variety of Ecoventures projects to help you get in on the action. We’re partnering with conservation-focused organisations such as the Maldives Whale Shark Research Programme in South Ari Atoll, or the Galapagos Whale Shark Project that combine once in a lifetime scuba diving expeditions with essential research aimed at saving the world’s largest fish. These programmes include everything from passive observation to tagging, physical exams, and even performing ultrasounds underwater!

Ready to dive into adventure while working hard to save one of the planet’s most majestic ocean giants? The ZuBlu team is happy to help. Our travel experts are standing by to assist with planning and trip preparation and have all the latest tips and advisories - no matter where in the world you’re hoping to take the plunge. Get in touch today to start custom creating the trip of a lifetime!

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