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Whale shark fast facts

As with most sharks, their name comes from their appearance – a whale-sized shark. Whale sharks, given their majesty and intrigue, are still relatively elusive to the scientific world. However, the Ningaloo Reef is home to one of the most reliable whale shark aggregations in the world! Returning to the Ningaloo each year around March to begin their annual feeding frenzy. This is why the Ningaloo is home to some of the best natural whale shark interactions in the world! 

Ningaloo Whale Shark Swim’s whale shark tours are designed to provide amazing opportunities to interact with these big sharks, but also to experience the amazing wildlife of the World Heritage listed Ningaloo Reef. 

 Quick facts: 

  • Whale sharks are believed to live well over 100 years. 
  • They are the largest fish in the ocean, with the largest recorded specimen just under 19m.  
  • They are filter feeders, feeding on mostly plankton and krill  
  • Whale sharks have tiny teeth 
  • The skin on a whale shark’s back can be 15 cm thick! 

Whale shark Biology 

The whale shark (Rhincodon typus) is the largest shark in the ocean, although they have been recorded to near 20m in length, the largest sharks we see on the Ningaloo are around 12m. A shark of this size can still reach around 11 tonnes! Most common sightings on the Ningaloo Reef are sharks between 4-8m in length. Whale sharks have a very distinctive appearance, with a broad, flattened head and large mouth. They have a dark blue/grey upper body that’s covered in white spots, with a white underbelly.  

 The skin on a whale shark’s back is extremely thick and used as a form of protection. This thick skin also gives whale sharks the ability to heal from major injuries. Unfortunately whale sharks with propeller injuries are a common sight on the Ningaloo, but even we have seen whale sharks recover from these scars overtime! 

 Very little is known about whale shark reproduction. We know that they sexually mature at a late age ~30-35 years. The only recorded mating evidence (although unsuccessful) was recorded on the Ningaloo Reef in 2019 by a spotter plane. Whale shark birth has never been observed and there have only been 7 whale shark pups seen in the world. All information regarding whale sharks’ reproduction we have from a dead specimen caught in Taiwan in 1996 known as ‘Mega Mumma.’ She had 300 different whale shark pups inside her that were all at different stages of development. This indicates that female whale sharks may be able to store sperm until they need it. 

Where are they? 

Whale sharks are a pelagic species found in all tropical and temperate seas. There are regular whale shark aggregations in Australia, Philippines, Mexico, Mozambique, Thailand and the Galapagos. However, whale sharks have been spotted in stranger places, with one being sighting in Rockingham down south! 

Although they are associated with shallow waters, whale sharks are seen at greater depths, with the ability to dive to over 2000m!  

Why are they spotty? 

From Mozambique folklore, on God’s visit to Earth, he became so captivated by a passing whale shark that he showered it with silver coins in appreciation of its grace and beauty. These silver coins formed the distinctive spots, owing to the Swahili name of ‘papa shillingi’, shark covered in shillings. 

However, more than sheer beauty, the spots on a whale shark serve a specific purpose, created through evolution. Their spots are actually used for camouflage.  

Many shark species possess counter camouflaging, commonly found on ocean predators – with a dark upper body to camouflage with the deeper water when attacking from below and a lighter underbelly to blend in with the sun rays and pass over unseen. Although whale sharks are not described as ‘predators’, they do possess this camouflaging. The spots on their upper side are said to blend in with the flickering sun rays as they are usually found in tropical waters. 

These spots are also used in identification like a fingerprint. Each whale shark is believed to have a completely unique pattern. Our photographers take a picture of the spot patterning on the left hand-side of each whaleshark we swim with, just behind its gills. This photo is then submitted to our governing body, the Department of Biodiversity, Conservation and Attractions (DBCA) who run it through a program developed by Ecocean. This program identifies the spots and markings from Ecoceans large database of identified whale sharks to determine if it is a returning individual or a new one.

This program was adapted from a software used by NASA to identify star constellations in space. This is why the patterns on a whale shark are colloquially called constellations.
Anyone is welcome to upload their own photos of any whale shark encounters to the Ecocean database you can find on their website. If it’s a shark sighted before, you will receive its information on previous sightings. If it has not yet been recorded, you are able to name the whale shark!

Visit ECOCEAN to find out more.