Whale Shark Fact Sheet
Whale shark: Rhincodon typus
Life History and Distribution
Whale sharks are the world’s largest fish and can grow up to 20m in length. They are found worldwide in tropical and temperate waters.
These large fish utilize a viviparous method of reproduction, meaning they give birth to live young. This was discovered when a female whale shark was harpooned off the coast of Taiwan in 1995 and she was carrying 300 yolk-dependent embryos.
Whale sharks have large, gaping mouths that enable efficient filter feeding. They eat mainly plankton and small fish.
Whale sharks are listed as vulnerable on the International Union for the Conservation of Nature’s (IUCN) Red List. This is due mainly to many human-caused factors such as overfishing, bycatch in fishing gear, and illegal poaching.
One whale shark fin can be sold for up to $15,000 for human consumption or for ornamental uses. The fins and meat are sold to restaurants to make food, the skin is used to make bags, and the oil is sold to make fish oil supplements. Legal fishing for whale sharks is banned in most countries, but still allowed in some Asian countries.
Due to their slow nature, whale sharks are vulnerable to becoming entangled in fishing gear unintentionally. They often die from not being able to move water over their gills, or die from being pulled onto the boat in the net. Animals with such large body structures often cannot support their weight out of the water.
In the past two decades whale sharks have become increasingly important for tourism, especially in developing island nations in their dive and snorkel industry. Popular sites for whale shark tourism are Philippines; Mexico; Ningaloo, Australia; the Red Sea; and Utila, Honduras. The whale sharks viewed in these areas are typically foraging aggregations of small males.
Until recently, almost nothing was known about these animals in the Eastern Tropical Pacific besides regular sightings of large individuals in the Galapagos by dive tourists. This is area is critical not only for a healthy ecotourism industry, but also for whale shark research to gain more insight into their migrations and reproductive cycles in order to establish critical habitat according to their life history.