Why whale sharks are our cause of the month


Whale shark research and conservation

The world’s biggest sharks are harmless filter feeders

Don’t let their name fool you! Despite their enormous size, whale sharks are actually a harmless filter-feeding species of shark. About the size of a school bus with a mouth that’s a meter wide, whale sharks eat by straining small organisms like plankton, schooling fish, and squid from the water. 

Whale sharks spend most of their time cruising the open ocean, which means much of their lives remain a mystery. For instance, they’ve never been observed mating or giving birth. However, researchers have observed a pregnant female, which is how we know they’re ovoviviparous, which is a fancy way of saying the females form and carry their babies in eggs that hatch inside them. 

Over a period of time, one female can give birth to as many as 300 pups. Yet whale sharks don’t reach maturity until they’re about 30 years old, which contributes to the vulnerability of this endangered species.


Big mouths, tiny plastics

The world’s whale shark population has decreased by more than half in just 75 years. The Indo-Pacific population has decreased by more than 63 percent since 1975. The Atlantic population has experienced a slower decline, largely due to regulation enforcement, but has still decreased by more than 30 percent.

Research on these elusive creatures and their interaction with marine debris is only starting to emerge, but recent findings don’t paint a happy picture for whale sharks. In addition to finding microplastic in their gills and all types of marine debris in their stomachs, researchers have also learned that exposure to the toxins absorbed by ocean plastic can alter their hormones and lead to a variety of health and reproductive issues.

Despite their endangered status and global conservation efforts, overfishing is still another major ongoing threat to whale shark populations. This is especially true for whale sharks that live in unregulated areas because their meat, fins, and oil are highly valued in international markets. Entanglement and bycatch are also potentially fatal threats associated with the commercial fishing industry.


Responsible ecotourism can help save whale sharks

Whale sharks love to swim in the warmer temperatures found at the surface of the ocean, which means there are unique opportunities for people to get in the water and see these gorgeous animals up close. 

While boat strikes can cause serious and sometimes fatal injuries and irresponsible divers can do things that disrupt their feeding habits, ecotourists that follow proper safety precautions and respect the animals’ boundaries can actually help this endangered species recover. 

By showing hunting communities that whale sharks are actually worth more alive, they’re able to change their relationship with these animals and become some of their greatest protectors.


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