Locally known in Cebuano as Butanding, the whale shark is the largest known fish in the oceans, and one of only three species of sharks that eats by filter feeding. Thought to live to an age of nearly 100 years, and grow to over 30m (90ft) in length, the whale shark does not reach its reproductive maturity until it is nearly 30 years old. These affectionately termed ‘gentle giants’ have been offered a level of protection from hunting and culling within the waters of the Islands of the Philippines since 1997
Slowly moving through the water, whale sharks are easily identified by their beautiful dark blue skin covered with a unique white spot patterning. Like a fingerprint, these spot markings are unique to each individual animal, and many marine biologists use these markings as a way to indicate population sizes and migratory paths of groups and individuals.
This amazing creature is able to grow this big by simply filter feeding on tiny microscopic plants and animals that are found in the water column. And while most of their food source is found in the warm, shallow surface waters, whale sharks are able to dive down to depths of nearly 1,000m (3,000ft)
There are unfortunately many threats to the global populations of whale sharks, and sharks in general. One such threat is the commercial trade in whale shark meat and fins. The meat is consumed, the liver is processed for oil, cartilage is used in health supplements, and the fins are used in soup. With the fin being the most profitable part of the shark, is it estimated that 100 million sharks are culled each year, globally.
Due to its size, a whale shark might be considered a ‘trophy’ and can fetch anything from $10,000 to $20,000. And with shark fin retailing from $300 per pound up-wards, the commercial shark fisheries, both legal and illegal, are a multi-billion dollar industry.
Many smaller, developing countries and island nations have traditionally consumed shark meat as a source of protein, but large industrial foreign fishing vessels are encroaching on this way of living, removing large numbers of sharks and threatening the stability of the marine ecosystem, in which sharks play a large role.
In recent years, studies have shown that catch numbers for whale sharks have declined, but this could be an overall result of declining population numbers, and not a declining demand. In fact many countries where Whale Sharks are protected still see many local fisherman targeting these species. Tan-Awan, Oslob, home to the now famous Philippines Whale Shark tour is one such location. The local fishing village was frustrated the Whale Sharks were eating their catch and viewed them as a pest seeking to remove them from the waters. Scuba Divers heard about their plan and intervened; introducing them to the concept of Eco-Toursim and promoting the Whale Sharks rather than destroying them. This not only helped save these beloved “Giants” but also provided a much larger source of income for the villagers and an improved way of life. We have many guests who stay with us for this experience and it is a bucket list tour!
The Convention on the International Trade in Endangered Species (CITES) has listed the Whale shark under its Appendix II since 2003, and strictly controls the trade in whale shark products, but these products are still readily available where fisheries remain and continue to fetch high prices. Unfortunately this issue is not limited to only Whale Sharks. In fact other sharks of all different species are hunted every day and an estimated 200,000,000 plus are killed annually throughout the world! Sharks of all species play an important part in creating a healthy marine ecosystem and the more we can educate people to help protect sharks they better and healthier our oceans will be for future generations.