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Understanding the whale shark

Updated: Nov 17, 2021

The whale shark is an incredible species. Having spent most of the last decade working with whale sharks, I am still in awe of them. Did you know that small, 3-metre whale sharks can dive to over 1,000 m and travel thousands of kilometres a year? They have the potential to grow to enormous sizes, doing so by feeding on some of the world’s smallest prey, like zooplankton. Isn’t that incredible?!

Gonzo snorkelling with a whale shark

Despite now being one of the most studied species of shark, this was not always the case. Up until the 1980s few global records existed, and now there are over 25 global hotspots to study them with some sort of reliable accessibility. The latter is important, as it’s hard to study a species that we cannot cost-effectively have access to. Fast-forward to now, our knowledge has advanced substantially, to the point that the first ever book on whale sharks was published last month: Whale Sharks: Biology, Ecology and Conservation edited by Dr. Al Dove and Dr. Simon Pierce. I’ve been lucky to contribute to three chapters in the book, namely on population ecology, conservation and future research questions. Although we know a lot more about whale sharks than we used to, there are still a number of very important persistent questions that remain, such as how long their gestation is, where adults spend the majority of their time, how they relate to their immediate environment or how big a problem plastic is to them?

The book is a great collection of our latest understanding of the species, from population genetics, ecology, gigantism (as likely the largest fish to have ever lived), to its conservation and the pros/cons of tourism amongst others. My favourite chapter (a bit biased here) is Chapter 12: Conservation of Whale Sharks. In this chapter we discuss the current status of the whale shark, its management, where conservation interventions have succeeded and where we need to be more proactive moving forward. We share a preliminary assessment of the Green Status of Species for the whale shark - a complementary tool to the IUCN Red List - and propose smaller management units to effectively implement management and conservation plans for the species. Make sure to grab a copy & check out Gonzo's contribution in Chapters 7, 12 & 13!

MARECO’s work will continue to support whale shark research and conservation, working with global partners to support the species’ recovery. From tourism management and population assessments, to genetics and connectivity, we look forward to continuing to work with and understand more about the world’s largest fish.

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