The whale shark is the largest fish in the world and can fit a human inside its mouth. But don’t be afraid: this huge fish eats only plankton and small fish, which it gathers by pumping water over its gills.
The whale shark is one of three sharks that filter feeds, and the only one that does so actively rather than relying on simply swimming forward with its mouth open. Despite this, the whale shark has about 300 very small teeth, the purpose of which is unknown.
In addition to being the largest species of fish on the planet, whale sharks also have the thickest skin of any animal – about four inches thick. This skin is decorated with a pattern of yellowish white dots that is unique to each shark.
Whale sharks are usually solitary, but they can feed in groups. One particularly striking example of this behavior occurs around April off Australia, when immature males gather to feast on particularly plentiful plankton. Throughout their travels, whale sharks often cross entire oceans.
Whale sharks are considered vulnerable. One of the most important threats they face is shark finning – although their fins are not very popular to eat, because they are so large, they are highly prized for displays. In 1999, just one whale shark fin sold for around £11,000. Other threats include hunting for liver oil and meat and being caught accidentally as bycatch. It’s not all bad news, though! Some areas are protecting whale sharks in order to foster ecotourism.
Oceana’s shark campaign focuses on reducing shark bycatch, establishing shark finning bans, and implementing species-specific shark management.