In Vietnam, it is known as Ca Ong, or “Lord Fish,” and is considered a deity of the seas. In the Philippines, it is called a butanding, while most of Latin America refers to it as “pez dama” or “domino”, after the distinctive pattern of spots on its back. In English, we call it the whale shark— a bit of a misleading name, because the whale shark is no whale.
Instead, Rhincodon typus is the world’s largest fish, with full-grown adults able to reach 60 feet and weigh nearly 75,000 pounds (37.5 tons). Whale sharks belong to the Orectolobiformes order of sharks, which consists of bottom-feeding species such as the nurse shark and wobbegong shark. Unlike its cousins, the whale shark is pelagic, meaning that it mostly lives in the open ocean.
Whales sharks can be found in all tropical and warm temperate seas (with the exception of the Mediterranean), ranging from Japan to Australia, Africa to Latin America. Despite their massive size, whale sharks are remarkably docile creatures. As opposed to great whites and tiger sharks, which hunt large mammals on rare occasions attack humans, whale sharks subsist on a more modest diet of plankton, crustaceans, small fish and the occasional squid that are sucked in through its huge, 5-foot-wide mouth, and then filtered from sea water through its gills.
Apart from their size, what is remarkable about whale sharks is how little scientists knew about them. It wasn’t until 1996 that scientists discovered that, unlike most fish, whale sharks give birth to live young, in litters of nearly 300 pups at a time. Whale sharks are also believed to be highly migratory, with at least one individual known to have traveled over 8,000 miles across the Pacific Ocean, but scientists are unsure what migratory patterns, if any, these huge fish follow. And while Whale Sharks appear to live in solitude during most of their adult lives, they have on some occasions also been observed to gather together in schools of nearly 100 individuals.
Status of Whale Sharks
Whale sharks are listed as “Vulnerable” by the International Union for Conservation of Nature (ICUN), and as “conservation dependent” in the Gulf of Mexico by the American Fishing Society. Whale shark fishing is the largest threat to these creatures’ existence. While fishing is outlawed in countries such as the Philippines and the Maldives, it continues in other areas such as Southeast Asia and Taiwan, where around 100 whale sharks are taken annually. Although efforts have been made to reduce whale shark fishing globally, the whale’s slow growth and long maturity means that its population has been slow to recover.
Whale Sharks in Belize
Not only are whale sharks harmless to humans, they at times even allow divers to swim alongside them peacefully, an experience which has created a growing ecotourism industry surrounding these graceful giants. In Belize, whale shark diving takes place from March to June, when hundreds of sharks arrive at the Gladden Spit Marine Preserve along the Mesoamerican Barrier Reef for an annual feast of fish eggs spawned during the snapper mating season. This gathering is one of the largest in the region, making Belize one of the best places to observe the sharks in the world.
Belize is at the forefront of whale shark conservation and responsible tourism as the country seeks to preserve the unique annual shark migration off Belize’s coast. Since 2003, Whale Sharks have been labeled a protected species, and are prohibited from being caught or killed in Belizian waters. In Gladden Split, the Belize Fisheries Department, in cooperation with organizations such as The Nature Conservatory and Friends for Nature, has worked with local fishermen to reduce fishing activities during the event, and strict guidelines have been implemented for tourists interacting with the sharks to ensure minimal human impact on this magnificent fish.
Even with recent conservation advances, however, threats to whale sharks in Belize persist. Tourism-related development along Belize’s coast has in some cases harmed the Mesoamerican Reef that sustains much of Belize’s ocean biodiversity, while runoff caused by commercial agriculture has caused pesticide pollution and damaged parts of the reef. Finally, global warming has resulted in episodes of coral bleaching alongside rising ocean temperatures, threatening the whale shark’s food supply of plankton and small fish which call the reef home.
For More Information:
- Whale Sharks: (Nature Conservancy)
- Whale Sharks (Florida Museum)
- Whale Sharks (MarineBio.org)
- Whale Sharks (Southern Environmental Association)
This article was prepared as part of our work with VivaBelize.com to provide free educational resources for the study of the science and culture of Belize. For more information on these trips, click here, or use our contact page to send us a message.
- Whale Shark feeding: By Arturo de Frias Marques (Own work) [CC BY-SA 4.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/4.0)], via Wikimedia Commons
- Whale Shark at the Georgia Aquarium: By Zac Wolf (Own work 😉 [CC BY-SA 2.5 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/2.5)], via Wikimedia Commons
Article by Devin Windelspecht. Devin is a junior at Northeastern University in Boston MA where he majors in international relations. Devin is responsible for background work on many of the articles on the site, as well as well as articles on science and the culture of Belize.