If you’re reading this, you may already be aware that it’s a policy of mine to celebrate working with a new organisation by adopting a marine animal on their behalf (in the form of a charity donation). Today, I’m sharing why I have chosen whale sharks as one of my chosen species for this adoption programme. Enjoy!
Whale shark fact file
- Common name: Whale shark
- Scientific name: Rhincodon typus
- Alternate animal name: If you listen to Dr. Simon Pierce, probably spotted wonderfish or oceanic Labradors
- Conservation status: Endangered
- Diet: Plankton
- Average life span: Unknown – estimated around 100 years
- Reaches sexual reproduction at: Estimated around 25 years
- Pregnancy lasts: Unknown
- Largest recorded individual: 18.8m
- Weight: Around 10 tonnes
- Fun fact: The stunning spot pattern on each whale shark is unique to that individual – much like a human fingerprint, which means scientists can identify the shark from just a photo
Why do you love whale sharks?
If you think great white sharks are enormous, you’d be right…but whale sharks are even bigger! Yet, these big blundering fellas are completely harmless to humans. They just spend their days going about their business looking for their next snack – and who can’t relate to that? Sadly, the same can’t be said for our impact on these endangered animals.
I’ve been lucky enough to encounter several whale sharks in my lifetime, particularly when I was living in Tofo, Mozambique, and volunteering with MMF. While my main pro bono support was in the form of helping them with their communications (writing press releases, blogs, liaising with journalists etc.), I also helped the research team collect data on the weekends.
One of the many cool things about whale sharks is their awesome spot patterns, which look like a starry sky. Like our fingerprints, these patterns are unique to each individual shark. They can be a way of identifying individuals – all you need is a citizen scientist (like me) and a camera. So, we’d head out on the boat with our dive partner Peri Peri scouring the choppy ocean. We’d be looking for the sight of a large dark shape in the water or a fin breaking the surface. It can be pretty tough to identify a shark in the rough waters but the skippers are incredible spotters. If there’s something there, you can be pretty sure they’ll find it.
When we got the OK, we’d slide quietly into the water fins first so as not to scare the sharks away. I’d swim alongside them – giving them plenty of space – while I tried to get an ID photo. For consistency, we’ll always try to take a photo of the left side of the shark first. If there’s plenty of time once you’ve got that side, you can drop back and swim around (steering well clear of the powerful tail) to get a picture of the right-hand side too. It can take a bit of effort to catch up with them as these big beasts can swim pretty quickly!
As well as my time in Tofo, I had the incredible opportunity to visit Madagascar to see my friend Stella who heads up the Madagascar Whale Shark Research Project. MMF’s Dr Simon Pierce and a couple of BBC crew members who were filming Blue Planet Live happened to be visiting at the same time. Although I’d already seen whale sharks in Mozambique, this trip was something else!
Although Stella and her team usually conducts their research from tourist vessels, for a couple of days we had our own boat to go out and collect some shark IDs. For me, spending the day on the water with two of the world’s leading whale shark experts was very cool to say the least. Stella has named all her sharks and can actually recognise most of them on sight (remember those tell-tale spot patterns?). Which is pretty fun when you’ve been in the water with a shark and Stella says “oh, look, it’s Michel’ or ‘Thomas’ or whichever shark it is.
While Tofo’s waters are often very rough, in Madagascar, the clear blue waters are almost completely flat. There, the sharks feed on bait balls so they’re much easier to spot from a distance thanks to the splashing and birds dive bombing. Seeing the activity, we’d race over and, sure enough, find a shark hanging around and casually eating plankton.
We had several fantastic shark encounters but one in particular stands out: a super playful juvenile (young but still massive at somewhere around 8m) who was very interested in checking us out. He seemed to be especially intrigued by Simon’s camera, which resulted in some amazing photos!
Which charity will the whale shark adoption support?
Whale shark adoptions will support the Marine Megafauna Foundation (MMF)’s pioneering global whale shark conservation programme. MMF’s vision is to live in a world where marine life and humans thrive together. With your support, they hope to can save ocean giants from extinction.