The biggest of all sharks and the largest living fish, the whale shark is one of the most dramatic sights in the oceans. Its huge size, distinctive patterning and large, front-set mouth make it instantly recognisable and it is commonly seen cruising near the surface in many tropical and sub-tropical waters around the world. Whale sharks feed mostly on plankton, although they also regularly feed on shoals of small fish and squid too. Unlike basking sharks, which simply filter vast quantities of water as they swim, whale sharks actively suck up their prey before filtering it very efficiently, and are sometimes seen feeding on large concentrations of food items in groups.
They regularly appear in the same locations at specific times of year, probably to capitalise on seasonal plankton blooms and events such as coral spawning, they have become the focus of a large eco-tourism industry in some parts of the world, notably western Australia, where snorkellers queue up for the opportunity to swim with these docile giants.
Whale sharks are protected by law in some countries, but they are actively hunted for food in others, especially Taiwan and the Philippines. As many as 100 sharks a year are killed in Taiwan alone, raising concerns about the future of a fish which grows slowly and reaches maturity late in life.
Uncertain, but probably up to 20 metres / more than 12,000kg.
Distribution: All warm temperate and tropical seas, except the Mediterranean. Thought to be highly migratory.
Zooplankton, small fish, squid.
Viviparous. Number of young varies: one Taiwanese specimen contained over 300 pups, the largest number ever found in a single shark.
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