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International Whale Shark Day: Protecting the gentle giants of the sea

Whale sharks have been fascinating aquatic enthusiasts and marine biologists for years. Their massive size, unique patterns, and slow movement make them one of the most intriguing marine animals

However, these same characteristics also make them one of the most vulnerable, and their numbers are declining at an alarming rate. International Whale Shark Day has been created to celebrate these magnificent creatures and to increase awareness about the urgent need to protect and conserve them.

“These gentle giants fascinate aquatic enthusiasts and marine biologists alike, yet it is up to us to make sure that their numbers increase and their futures are protected. This is what International Whale Shark Day is all about,” states the official press release for the event.

A closer look at the whale shark

Despite their name, whale sharks are indeed sharks, not whales. They are the biggest living species of shark on our planet, growing up to 14 meters in length and weighing an average of 12 tons. Interestingly, their teeth are quite small, measuring only six millimeters in length.

“One of the most fascinating facts about whale sharks is that they all have a unique pattern. The skin of a whale shark is fully unique, just like the fingerprint of a human. This gives researchers the ability to run visual analytics on a whale shark so that they can identify and track it correctly,” the press release explains.

Unfortunately, their preference for roaming seas with around a 50-meter depth, despite being able to dive up to 1,000 meters, and their slow swimming speed of approximately five kilometers per hour, make them highly vulnerable to getting caught in fishing nets and ship collisions.

A day to raise awareness

International Whale Shark Day, started in 2012, aims to raise awareness of the dangers these animals face. The whale shark has been hunted to vulnerability for its highly prized fins and meat, resulting in its reclassification by the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN) in 2016 from a vulnerable species to an endangered one.

“In fact, in 2016, the whale shark was reclassified by the IUCN, moving from a vulnerable species to an endangered one, which is incredibly worrying,” the press release notes.

According to some estimates, there are only tens of thousands of these sharks left across the globe. Hunting plays a significant role in their decline, but there are also cases of whale sharks colliding with boats and getting trapped in fishing gear. In some parts of Asia, products made from whale sharks are in very high demand.

More about whale sharks

Whale sharks (Rhincodon typus) are indeed one of the most awe-inspiring creatures in the ocean. They belong to the group of fish known as carpet sharks, and despite their immense size, they are known to be gentle and pose no threat to humans.

Physical characteristics

The whale shark is the largest living fish species, and the largest living non-mammalian vertebrate. It holds many records for its size. The average size of an adult whale shark is about 39 feet.

The whale shark has a distinctive light-grey or brown color with white spots and stripes which are unique to each individual. Their skin is remarkably thick, up to 10 cm in some places, and is very tough. They have a pair of dorsal fins and pectoral fins. Their heads are wide and flat with a rounded snout and small eyes at the front corners.

Feeding habits

Whale sharks primarily feed on plankton, krill, and small fish. Despite their enormous size, they have very small teeth which they do not use for eating. Instead, they feed by opening their mouths wide and filtering the water for food, a method known as filter feeding. 

These sharks have specialized filter pads in their gills to trap and filter out food particles from the water. They can process more than 6,000 liters of water each hour.

Habitat and migration

Whale sharks are found in open waters of the tropical oceans and are rarely found in waters below 21°C (70°F). They prefer warm waters and are usually found on the surface. 

These sharks are known to be highly migratory creatures. Although they are usually solitary, they occasionally gather in large numbers at feeding sites.


The reproduction of whale sharks is still somewhat of a mystery. They are ovoviviparous, meaning that the female produces eggs but the eggs hatch inside the female’s body. She then gives birth to live young. 

A female captured in 1996 was found to have 300 pups inside her, which is the largest litter size ever recorded for any shark.

Conservation status

The whale shark is currently listed as endangered by the IUCN. The primary threats to whale sharks are human-related, including accidental capture in fishing gear, boat strikes, and targeted hunting for their fins, skin, and meat. In some parts of the world, whale sharks are hunted for their liver oil, which is used to waterproof boats and as a supplement in animal feed.

Efforts are being made worldwide to protect these magnificent creatures, including the creation of marine protected areas, the implementation of fishing regulations, and the promotion of ecotourism. 

International Whale Shark Day is a crucial initiative in this regard, serving as a global reminder of the importance of protecting and conserving the world’s largest fish.

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