The whale shark has been revered in several Asian countries – especially Vietnam and the Philippines. Once considered deities, their favor may still be of use to the local population, as more and more tourists relish the chance to swim with whale sharks the majestic beings of the sea.
Widely considered to be the biggest fish in the sea – whales are mammals, lest you have forgotten – the whale shark is surprisingly docile for its name and the stereotypes that are associated with its species. But do not be concerned; instead of irritating surfers and horny couples, these sharks prefer tiny plankton which they filter through a special organ in their mouth. Besides, it is not like they can be aggressive and vicious without any teeth or other scary appendages.
There are no precise estimates as for their population, and this is unsurprising as they can be found in almost all warm seas and in several oceans, including the Atlantic, the Pacific and the Indian ocean. Statistically speaking, you stand the greatest chance to stumble into one of these off the coast of Australia, Mexico or the Philippines. While their numbers could be in the hundreds of thousands, only 750 individual units have been tagged and identified. The distinctive polka dot pattern on their back is unique to each shark, so researchers can usually tell them apart just by looking at them.
Still, the world knows next to nothing about these creatures. Only two decades ago was a dead pregnant whale shark discovered, and from its insides, scientists have managed to deduce how their reproductive system works. The eggs hatch inside their mother, and remain there until they are “born”. If the sheer number of eggs found in the specimen is the norm, this is by far the most fecund type of shark known to science, with more than 300 fetuses inside a single female.
Due to their size, speed and diving capabilities, whale sharks can be incredibly elusive when they choose. The most interesting part is that the lack of a distinct swim bladder has puzzled most scientists as to how these sharks manage their depth; other fish use this bladder when they need to go deeper or ascend. The hypothesis is that they simply allow themselves to fall deeper when they need rest and then propel themselves up to feed.
In countries like Belize, the Philippines or even Australia, tourists spend millions of dollars and they are attracted mostly by the opportunity to see these creatures and swim alongside them. Of course, some jerks can always try to ride on a whale shark, but it is only a matter of time before someone does something about these idiots. In any case, this type of tourism is catching up to commercial fishing and may even surpass it soon enough. We can hardly wait.
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