- Scientific name: Rhincodon typus
- Docile nature and huge size make them popular ecotourism attractions
- Harmless to humans and feed exclusively on small creatures despite their big size
- Considered endangered by the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN)
Whale sharks are nomadic creatures which means that they like to travel and do not like staying in a single location. Tagged whale sharks have been observed to travel thousands of kilometers, travelling from country to country in search of food. They like to live in warm tropical waters and also tend to be found near the water surface where their favorite food – plankton, tiny shrimp and fish, fish eggs, and jellyfish – are abound.
The animals gather in different areas around the world which are rich in nutrients to feed on seasonal aggregations of their food. Within the Coral Triangle, popular whale shark diving sites can be found in Cebu tropical krill and baitfishes (Ningaloo Reef, Australia), red land crab larvae (Christmas Island), fish eggs and larvae (Mexico), and shrimps (northern Borneo and Philippines). This suggests that these areas form a portion of the whale shark’s critical habitat.
It is present in all Southeast Asian countries in the Coral Triangle which are Indonesia, Malaysia, and the Philippines or the CT3.
Why they are important
Whale sharks help keep the water clean by keeping the plankton population in check. Plankton are microscopic plants and animals that live near the surface of the water, they are an important primary producer in an ecosystem. However, if the plankton populations get too big then it can result in harmful algal blooms which can block sunlight for marine plants that depend on photosynthesis. When the plankton in these blooms reach the end of their life, they will die off in massive numbers. Their decomposition lowers the oxygen level in the water which suffocates the fish.
Whale sharks are a major ecotourism attraction in many parts of the world such as Donsol, Philippines and Cenerawasih Bay in eastern Indonesia. They are much more valuable alive than killed for their fins and body parts. In Australia, the conservative value for each living whale shark is estimated at $282,000 Australian dollars. Ecotourism practices around whale sharks have created employment for local communities and have boosted local economies. After whale sharks were legally protected in the Philippines in 1998, an average of 7,500 paying visitors were coming to the town of Donsol in Sorsogon, Philippines to encounter whale sharks. Since 2002, more than 300 jobs have been created and over 200 fishermen have gained steady, additional employment as guides and boat operators as a result of whale shark ecotourism.
Whale sharks can weigh up to 9,000 kg – that’s like the weight of five to six cars! They reach this size by feeding on small creatures such as plankton, anchovies, or shrimp. They swim near the surface of the water and open their mouths to take in all the food. The water gets filtered through their gills which acts like a net to catch the plankton while allowing the water to pass through, this is a process known as filter feeding.
Each whale shark has a unique pattern of spots which is easily viewed from above; this is comparable to how each human has a unique fingerprint. This allows researchers to easily identify certain whale sharks and allows us to keep track of their life.
Demand for whale shark products has made this a very valuable species for hunters; they are hunted for their meat, oils, and fins. There is still a big market for shark fin soup in Asia which can often sell for up to $100 USD per bowl. While the fins can be used for food, they are more often used as trophy displays in restaurants to impress customers due to their inferior taste. By-catch is a threat to them and there have been a lot of instances where they get tangled in purse seines, longlines, and gillnets.
The whale shark’s fame makes it prone to harmful tourism practices by tour operators who do not practice proper ecotourism. Bad habits such as feeding or touching them can negatively affect their natural migration, feeding, and reproductive patterns which can have a huge impact on their populations. If tourist interactions are not properly managed, whale sharks can develop diseases from spoiled food given to them, get injured by excited tourists and divers or get hit by boat propellers. The whale shark ecotourism industry in Oslob, Philippines is a controversial site due to it not following proper practices which also ensure the safety of the whale shark population there.
What you can do
Follow proper guidelines when seeing whale sharks in their natural habitats. According to a campaign poster made by the World Wildlife Fund (WWF), some of the things people should refrain from doing are feeding them, getting too close, using flash photography, and touching them. It is good to research about the ecotourism site before going there to see if other people encountered bad ecotourism practices. The best way to discourage bad practices is to not support them. An example of a sustainable whale shark site would be in Donsol, Sorsogon which is overseen by the WWF themselves.
Do not eat shark fin soup, whale sharks can be used for shark fin soup their and their fins are used for display in restaurants to lure customers in.
Report any sale or capture of a whale shark to your local authorities. Whale sharks are currently a protected species in Malaysia, Indonesia, and the Philippines.
Laws that protect Whale Sharks in the CT3:
If you wanted to create an ecotourism business to share the beauty of whale sharks how would you make sure that your business is not harmful to them?
Answer by commenting on the Facebook post by CTI-Southeast Asia!
Article by Panji Brotoisworo. Art by Dana Rose Salonoy.