One of the largest fish in the world, reaching the size of a bus, we can find it in the enchanted islands of Galapagos, the striking feature of its skin are the white spots that cover it, it is possible to identify them by their very marked characteristics.
The Galapagos archipelago has one of the largest populations of adult female whale sharks in the world, which use this area as a routing area, making it a very attractive destination for tourists who enjoy diving with these giants of the ocean.
Their large size can become extremely intimidating to us, however, the whale shark is a very docile fish, which sometimes allows divers to swim around holding on to them, however, it is best to stay close to their heads, as their huge tails can give you a pretty powerful whip.
The whale shark’s flattened head sports a blunt snout above its mouth, with small beards protruding from the nostrils. Its back and sides are gray to brownish, with white spots between pale vertical and horizontal stripes, and the belly is white. Its two dorsal fins are oriented towards the back of its body, which ends with a large forked tail or caudal fin.
Whale sharks are what the scientific world calls filter feeders. That means they like to eat krill and plankton, which are some of the smallest organisms that inhabit the sea. We’re not going to lie, their mouths are wide enough to swallow a human (whole), but considering they think we smell bad and prefer to slurp, rather than bite, you’re totally safe, as long as you don’t put your hand in their giant vacuum cleaner.
In truth, it feeds in several different ways, including suction and filter feeding, that is, sucking water into its mouth and filtering small fish and plankton which it then eats. It can dive to depths of over 1000 meters, but is usually found in surface waters with temperatures between 21 and 30 degrees Celsius.
Every year between July and September, whale sharks travel to Galapagos in what appears to be a long migration. Surprisingly, more than 95% of the whale sharks observed in Galapagos are pregnant females, which means that the islands are a very important place for the conservation of this species.
The Galapagos Whale Shark Project (GWSP) team, along with park rangers from the Galapagos National Park Directorate, staff from the Marine Megafauna Foundation and artisanal fishermen from the islands conducted Expedition 2022 in the northern end of the archipelago and managed to tag seven individuals during the two-week trip.
With a modified fishing boat anchored on Darwin Island, the team placed satellite trackers on seven whale sharks, made 16 photo identifications that were added to the Wild Book for Sharks photographic identification library (www.sharkbook.ai); and extracted two blood samples for analysis, scientific information that will be used to promote conservation actions at the regional level for these giants of the sea.
The project is developed with the support of the Galapagos Conservation Trust, Galapagos Conservancy, Save Our Seas Foundation and Marine Megafauna Foundation.
Fun fact: Unlike other sharks that use their large tail fins to swim, whale sharks use their entire huge bodies to propel themselves through the water.
Nemo, the Galapagos whale shark.
This is the first record of a whale shark staying in Galapagos, leaving the marine reserve and the insular exclusive economic zone, reaching international waters and returning to the archipelago.
A female whale shark returned to Darwin Island, in the Galapagos archipelago, after 80 days of being registered. The animal was tagged by the team of researchers of the Galapagos Whale Shark project and the Galapagos National Park Directorate on August 14, 2020.
One of the team’s researchers, Sofia Green, named the 13-meter-long animal Nemo because it has a bitten pectoral fin.
After his tagging, Nemo headed 500 kilometers east of the archipelago, what scientists call the biological corridor, to return to Galapagos and stay within protected waters near the Marchena and Genovesa islands. Nemo finally arrived at Darwin’s Arch, from where he began his adventure. The technical team estimates that Nemo sailed about 1,600 kilometers during his journey.
This is the first record of a whale shark staying in Galapagos, leaving the marine reserve and the insular exclusive economic zone, reaching international waters and returning to Galapagos. In August, an expedition of scientists and technicians from the Universidad San Francisco de Quito (USFQ) and the Galapagos National Park Directorate managed to tag 10 whale sharks during a 15-day trip to the north of the archipelago.
The tagging, which included Nemo, was done with the objective of studying the horizontal movement of this species, its diving behavior, reproductive status and general health. This information will allow establishing better management measures for the protection of this endangered species.
The mysterious Coco
Coco is probably about 50 years old, but as a reserved lady, no one really knows her age. Humans have not been able to discover exactly how long it takes for this fish, the largest in the world, to grow.
Coco is part of a distinct and unique population in the world, that of Darwin Island in the Galapagos, where up to 99% of these animals are large adult females. “They are twice the size of those seen in coastal aggregations,” says Hearn.
They arrive there every year, between July and October, but they don’t stay. They’re just passing through, and so far no one knows what for, because they’re not seen feeding. Nor is it known where they go next, because they all take different routes. It is also not known why Coco went to Cocos Island, nor why she is now heading to the coast of Ecuador.
Perhaps to reproduce, but the truth is that about 20 newborn whale sharks have been found globally and generally in deep waters. That is why it is believed that these animals do not have a precise breeding area. Nor do we have any idea where they copulate with the males.