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Whale Shark

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Gentle giants, whale sharks filter-feed, swimming with their wide mouths open, collecting plankton and small fish.



About the Whale Shark

As the largest fish in the sea, reaching lengths of 40 feet or more, whale sharks have an enormous menu from which to choose. Fortunately for most sea-dwellers—and us!—their favorite meal is plankton. They scoop these tiny plants and animals up, along with any small fish that happen to be around, with their colossal gaping mouths while swimming close to the water's surface.

Filter Feeding

The whale shark, like the world's second largest fish, the basking shark, is a filter feeder. In order to eat, the beast juts out its formidably sized jaws and passively filters everything in its path. The mechanism is theorized to be a technique called “cross-flow filtration,” similar to some bony fish and baleen whales.

Characteristics

The whale shark's flattened head sports a blunt snout above its mouth with short barbels protruding from its nostrils. Its back and sides are gray to brown with white spots among pale vertical and horizontal stripes, and its belly is white. Its two dorsal fins are set rearward on its body, which ends in a large dual-lobbed caudal fin (or tail).

Population

Preferring warm waters, whale sharks populate all tropical seas. They are known to migrate every spring to the continental shelf of the central west coast of Australia. The coral spawning of the area's Ningaloo Reef provides the whale shark with an abundant supply of plankton.

Although massive, whale sharks are docile fish and sometimes allow swimmers to hitch a ride. They are currently listed as a vulnerable species; however, they continue to be hunted in parts of Asia, such as the Philippines.


WATCH: Putting a Camera on a Whale Shark

Engineer Graham Wilhelm joined National Geographic Emerging Explorer Brad Norman on an expedition to Ningaloo Reef, Australia’s longest fringing reef. Their goal was to deploy Crittercams on whale sharks to get a glimpse of the sharks’ underwater world and to better understand their behavior along the reef.