Intriguing Whale Shark Facts and Legends

It's so hard to pin down a good list of solid, proven whale shark facts and to separate the facts about whale sharks from the fiction! Despite their huge size and their uniqueness in the animal kingdom, they are mysterious creatures - even to the marine biologists who study them.

Ningaloo Reef Whale Shark Encounters (Whale Shark Facts)

Emerging from the depths: an encounter with a mysterious Ningaloo Reef Whale Shark.
Photo courtesy of the official Tourism Western Australia site.

6 Intriguing Whale Shark Facts:

1. Whale Shark Teeth

Whale sharks have teeth, but they are not used for feeding (or for anything else, for that matter). Their teeth are vestigal, a remnant from an ancestor way back in the species' evolutionary history that did use its teeth for feeding.

Whale shark teeth are very small and numerous, with each one is about 3mm long and hooked inward towards the mouth. Rhinodonte, the original Latin name for the species used prior to 1984, means "Rasp Tooth". There are thousands these tiny rasped teeth in each jaw, set in rows.

2. Whale Shark Migration, Distribution and Habitat

Whale sharks are distributed throughout the oceans of the world in tropical and warm temperate seas, generally between 30°N and 35°S. They are pelagic fish, meaning they spend most of their time in the middle-depths of the open seas, far from land. They do, however, sometimes venture quite close to shore and spend time feeding in the shallow-depths of the ocean, as happens at the Ningaloo Reef.

Whale shark migration is known to definitely occur, but exact migration patterns are not entirely understood. In some areas, whale sharks are seen all year round while in others, such as the mid-west coast of WA, they are only present at certain times of the year. It's believed that when they migrate and aggregate together, they do so in groups of roughly the same age, size and sex. The same individuals return to the same seasonal feeding grounds each year.

The presence of whale sharks in certain areas depends on the availability of their food, which in turn is affected by oceanographic facts like currents and upwellings, as well as events such as the Ningaloo mass coral spawning.

The whale shark migration to the Ningaloo Reef is one of the world's most predictable and reliable whale shark aggregations because the first coral spawning that signals their arrival in the area occurs every year within two weeks of the March full moon.

3. Whale Shark Behaviour

Most of the time, whale sharks are solitary - not travelling in schools or pods like so many other marine animals. However, it's not uncommon for them to group together to feed.

They are gentle, docile creatures. Because of their ginormous size, they have no predators and not much to be fearful of or defensive towards. And because they feed on plankton, they do not attack or show aggression towards large animals like fish or humans.

The docile and peaceful nature of whale sharks means that people can swim alongside them safely and without causing the animal fear or distress. If they ever do feel threatened, their response is to quickly dive down deep.

4. Whale Shark Size

The general consensus on whale shark size is that they can reach lengths of 18m (about the size of a bus), or more. But whale shark size is yet another mystery, or should I say an unproven whale shark fact! A great many people say that they've seen huge whale sharks longer than 12m, but these stories have never been officially recorded.

The largest ever whale shark on record:

The largest size ever officially recorded was a 12.65m whale shark.

5. Whale Shark Skin and Colouration

Did you know that whale sharks have the toughest, thickest skin of all the animals in the world? It can be up to 14cm thick and is covered in dermal denticles - tiny cartilagenous tooth-like structures that are the shark version of fish-scales and serve to make the skin very tough, as well as reducing drag so the shark can swim through the water more efficiently.

Whale shark skin is counter-shaded - pale on the underside and dark on top. This means they camouflage with the sky from the perpective of a creature looking up at one, and with the surface or the dark depths of the ocean for someone looking down. Their darker sides and backs are dark grey-brown in colour (appearing dark blue underwater) and covered in hundreds of small white to pale-yellow spots and thin vertical stripes - a pattern that resembles stars in the night sky. Each whale shark has its own unique pattern of these spots and stripes that can be used to identify individuals.

6. Whale Shark Facts: Feeding

They are unusual amongst the sharks in that they are filter feeders. They feed on plankton. krill, coral spawn and other tiny organisms by filtering it out of the large volumes of water that pass through their gills. They do this either by swimming with their huge mouth open, using their forward motion to push water into the mouth and out the gills, or by opening and closing their mouths and gulping in large amounts of water.

There are only two other known species of filter-feeding shark - the basking shark and the elusive megamouth that is rarely seen and was only discovered in 1976.

More Whale Shark Info:

Whale Shark Picture

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