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Swimming With the World’s Biggest Fish, the Whale Shark

Bay of La Paz, Gulf of California — Jumping into the Sea of Cortez to swim alongside a whale shark is like being in a National Geographic documentary. The massive fish looms out of the murk, swimming toward you with huge mouth agape. Just when you imagine you might be sucked Jonah-like down the gullet of the world’s biggest fish, the shark corrects course enough to glide by within a hand’s reach, like a great big bus easing into the traffic lane next to you.

That’s how I experienced my first (and quite likely only) encounter with this behemoth of the sea. I was with the National Geographic Committee for Research and Exploration (CRE) on a field inspection in the southern part of Mexico’s Baja California. The committee was there last week to see the places and projects it has funded in the region, receive reports from grantees, and to assess how one of the most beautiful and diverse parts of the planet is doing in the face of urban development, growing tourism, and climate change. (National Geographic Undertakes Science Expedition to the Gulf of California)

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Whale shark photo by Dave Witting, NOAA Fisheries

Swimming with whale sharks is not surprisingly one of the more popular tourist attractions in the Gulf. Operators take visitors on small boats to where the fish are feeding. There, under the supervision of an authorized guide and strict regulations that limit the number of people that may approach a whale shark at a time — keeping a minimum distance from the animals, and within a limit on the time in the water with them — you may be lucky enough to have an encounter with these gentle giants you will never forget.

Field Inspection linkMy six-person group included renowned shark expert Pete Klimley, star of wildlife documentaries produced by National Geographic and PBS. He explained how the filter-feeding whale sharks swim with jaws wide apart to scoop up fish eggs, larvae, and even small fish near the surface of the sea. “They have to do that for an hour or two to get the protein equivalent of a Big Mac,” Klimley said.

A whale shark swims just under the ocean surface, Bay of La Paz, Gulf of California, January 2016. Photograph by David Braun.
Above and below: A whale shark swims just under the ocean surface, Bay of La Paz, Gulf of California, January 2016. Photographs by David Braun.

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On my first dive with a whale shark I saw nothing but the fins and bubbles of the five swimmers in front of me. My second attempt at chasing a shark looked like it was also going to be a disappointment, but as I was about to haul myself onto the boat our guide tugged me back underwater; a whale shark was approaching.

My initial shock at the size of it turned to mild panic as I realised the shark was swimming toward us, mouth open wide. The guide tugged me in the opposite direction even as I was trying to tuck my legs up to avoid a collision. But the fish had the situation under control, adjusted trajectory and swept by so closely that we could feel its wake. It gave no other acknowledgement of our presence, but we could not have asked for a better view as its entire body from mouth to tail passed in front of us.

A whale shark encountered on our National Geographic field inspection in the Gulf of California. Photograph by Jen Shook.
A whale shark encountered on our National Geographic field inspection in the Gulf of California. Photograph by Jen Shook.

Back on the boat, when we gushed about what we had just experienced, Pete Klimley remarked: “This is why people like doing this. There was a time when if there was a shark in the water people would get out; now when there is a shark people jump in.”

Swimming with whale sharks is just one more reason to visit the Gulf of California, a place rich with wildlife and opportunities to explore and appreciate the natural world. You can enjoy National Geographic documentaries and appreciate the wonderful photographs in the magazine, but nothing comes close to seeing and experiencing the power and beauty of nature yourself.

In this National Geographic video: How does the whale shark feed its colossal 10-ton appetite?

30ft-long whale Shark filtering plankton, in Maldives. Arturo de Frias Marques/Creatuve Commons (Wikimedia)
30ft-long whale Shark filtering plankton, in Maldives. Arturo de Frias Marques/Creatuve Commons (Wikimedia)

Additional Information

Whale shark photo by Dave Witting, NOAA Fisheries
Whale shark photo by Dave Witting, NOAA Fisheries
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“National Geographic Sea Bird”, home to the Committee for Research and Exploration for a week in the Gulf of California. Photograph by David Braun.

12418031_10153900711084116_8462971761216697621_nDavid Braun is director of outreach with the digital and social media team illuminating the National Geographic Society’s explorer, science, and education programs.

He edits National Geographic Voices, hosting a global discussion on issues resonating with the Society’s mission and major initiatives. Contributors include grantees and Society partners, as well as universities, foundations, interest groups, and individuals dedicated to a sustainable world. More than 50,000 readers have participated in 10,000 conversations.

Braun also directs the Society side of the Fulbright-National Geographic Digital Storytelling Fellowship

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Comments

  1. whale shark inn
    Maamigili Island
    February 28, 4:12 am

    Whale Sharks are seen in this area in Maldives through out the year

  2. Jason Holmberg
    Portland, OR
    February 25, 5:20 pm

    Please submit your whale shark sightings to http://www.whaleshark.org. We can use the spot patterns on their bodies to identify each unique individual using computer vision and track them over time. Thank you!

  3. Sam
    February 5, 2:03 pm

    I was wondering if I could ask you a few questions about whale sharks for a research project that I’m working on in school. If you could respond to this as soon as possible then that would be great!

    1. Are whale sharks getting any where near endangered?
    2. Do people often kill whale sharks for sport?
    3. Do whale sharks have any mutualistic relationship with any other ocean animals?
    4. Where are whale sharks usually located?
    5. Are there any other interesting facts about whale sharks that not many people know about? And if there are then what are some?

    Sent from Yahoo Mail for iPhone

    • David Maxwell Braun
      February 5, 2:35 pm

      Sam, I have some research references for you, places where I would go to get answers to such questions. If others out there want to weigh in, please do.

      1. Are whale sharks getting any where near endangered?

      A good place to find out if a species is endangered is the IUCN Red List of Threatened Species. According to their entry for whale sharks (http://www.iucnredlist.org/details/19488/0), the whale shark is Vulnerable to becoming extinct. Here is a quote: “Populations appear to have been depleted by harpoon fisheries in Southeast Asia and perhaps incidental capture in other fisheries. High value in international trade, a K-selected life history, highly migratory nature and normally low abundance make this species vulnerable to commercial fishing. Dive tourism involving this species has recently developed in a number of locations around the world, demonstrating that it is far more valuable alive than fished.”

      Find out more about K-selected life history at http://www.britannica.com/science/K-selected-species

      2. Do people often kill whale sharks for sport?

      Not that I can tell on any significant scale, although clearly there is an issue with killing them for fins for the Asian markets. More here: http://www.britannica.com/science/K-selected-species

      3. Do whale sharks have any mutualistic relationship with any other ocean animals?

      The whale shark and the remora fish are often cited as an example of this. This has a bit more about the remora: http://phenomena.nationalgeographic.com/2013/07/17/what-good-is-half-a-sucker/

      4. Where are whale sharks usually located?

      Again from the IUCN page:

      “Whale Sharks are found in all tropical and warm temperate seas except the Mediterranean (Compagno 1984a, Wolfson 1986, Last and Stevens 1994). Although the range of this species typically lies between latitudes 30°N and 35°S, it has occasionally been sighted at latitudes as high as 41°N and 36.5°S (Wolfson 1986). Whale Sharks are known to inhabit both deep and shallow coastal waters and the lagoons of coral atolls and reefs (Demetrios 1979, Wolfson 1983). Iwasaki (1970) reported that they are found in surface seawater temperatures between 18-30°C, but most frequently occur in surface sea-water between 21- 25°C. Archival tags have recorded dives to over 700 m and a water temperature of 7.8°C off the coast of Belize (Graham and Roberts in prep.).

      “Whale Sharks are found almost all year round off the east coast of Taiwan (Province of China) (Leu et al. 1997), Honduras (A. Antoniou pers. comm.) and near the Seychelles (Gudger 1932). Ongoing studies on the population of Whale Sharks around Seychelles inner islands indicate that, although occasional shark sightings are made throughout the year, there are two seasonal peak sighting periods from June to August and October to November (Marine Conservation Society Seychelles, unpubl.). Similar patterns of infrequent year-round sightings and seasonal feeding aggregations of larger numbers (tens, to low hundreds) are recorded from many areas. Aggregations of whale shark occur in Indian coastal waters between December and April (Silas 1986), March-June in Tanzania (Yahya and Jiddawi pers. comm.), in Mozambique and northern KwaZulu-Natal (South Africa) from November to January (Beckley et al. 1997), off the coast of Somalia in September, off Chile during October, in the Sea of Cortez around May-June and October-November, in the Gulf of Mexico between August and September (Clark and Nelson 1997), off the coast of Belize in April/May to June (Heyman et al. 2001), in the Bohol Sea of the Philippines between April and May (Trono 1996, Alava et al. 2002), in the Coral Sea, near the Great Barrier Reef during November and December (McPherson 1990), at Ningaloo Reef in Western Australia in March-May (Norman 1999) and at Christmas Island in the Indian Ocean between November and January. There are also occasional reports from the Florida Keys (E. De Sabata pers. comm.). Although whale sharks have been sighted in numerous other regions, these sightings are generally sporadic and seasonal.

      “Recent developments in electronic and satellite tagging of Whale Sharks have demonstrated that these animals undertake multi-annual and very long-distance migrations. These include over 2,000 km from north-west Australia towards Asia (pers. obs. 2002), 550 km within a few weeks (Graham and Roberts in prep.), a 2,000 km two month migration from the Mindanao Sea, inner Philippines, to 280 km south of Vietnam (Eckert et al. 2002) and a 13,000 km migration in over 37 months from the Gulf of California, Mexico, to near Tonga (Eckert and Stewart 2001). Three sharks tagged in the Seychelles, Indian Ocean, in 2001 travelled west to Zanzibar, north-west to Somalia, and over 5,000 km to the coast of Thailand, respectively (Rowat 2002).”

      5. Are there any other interesting facts about whale sharks that not many people know about? And if there are then what are some?

      More from these trusted sources:

      http://animals.nationalgeographic.com/animals/fish/whale-shark/
      http://www.bbc.co.uk/nature/life/Whale_shark
      http://www.fisheries.noaa.gov/stories/2014/08/8_12_14surprisingfacts_whale_sharks.html

  4. Craig washington
    January 18, 4:50 pm

    I saw one years ago while diving in the waters off the coast of Costa Rica. A truly magnificent creature.