Face to face with the world’s largest fish. Jil Kühne, Author provided
The whale shark is the largest fish in the world, but much of its lifecycle remains shrouded in mystery. These gentle giants gather in just a handful of places around the globe – something which has long baffled scientists – but our new research has started to explain why. Better understanding of whale shark movements could help prevent further population loss in a species that has already experienced a 63% population decline over the past 75 years.
When swimming solo, the whale shark, which can grow up to 18.8 metres in length and 34 tons in weight, travels all over the world. Recently, a group of scientists tracked the remarkable journey of one whale shark across the Pacific from Panama to the Philippines. At more than 12,000 miles it proved to be one of the longest migrations ever recorded.
Yet whale sharks are known to come together at just a few specific locations around the world. Anything from ten to 500 whale sharks may gather at any one time in areas off the coasts of Australia, Belize, the Maldives, Mexico and more.
Approximately 20 hotspots have been identified – mere pinpricks in the vastness of the world’s oceans – but we don’t know what exactly attracts the whale sharks to them. In some cases the sites are linked to a specific biological phenomenon – such as the spawning of land crabs at Christmas Island in the Indian Ocean, which provides whale sharks with the seasonal equivalent of a Christmas feast. Our new research aimed to discover whether there was something else that united the places where these giants of the ocean hang out.
It’s all about bathymetry
The physical features of these spots – known as their bathymetry – have been shown to influence gathering points in other marine species. So in collaboration with the Maldives Whale Shark Research Programme, we decided to investigate whether it drives whale shark gatherings in the same way.
Our new global study shows that whale sharks congregate in specific areas of shallow water, next to steep slopes that quickly give way to areas much deeper water (usually between 200 metres and 1,000 metres).