By Elizabeth Flatley
Whale sharks are the largest shark and even the largest of any fish that lives today. These sharks feed on plankton because of their small esophagus and travel long distances to find enough food to keep up their large stature. Whale sharks are found in all tropical oceans across our planet and their white, spotted complexion makes the gentle giants easy to find for popular tourist attractions. The maximum size of the shark, currently unknown, but could be as large as 20 meters or around 65 feet. Adult whale sharks are found around the surface to feed, but some may dive as low as 1000 meters to search for a meal. Although given protection, whale sharks are provided with from many countries; the species declines despite our best efforts. Whale sharks are especially important because they spread out, or are isolated from other sharks, indicating the presence of plankton throughout the oceans and the overall health of the seas.
Currently, whale sharks are an endangered species meaning they face a high risk of extinction in the wild. Whale sharks are highly targeted and valued by international markets. The demand for their meat, oil, and fins poses a threat to the species, particularly by unregulated fisheries. These sharks are victims of bycatch, the accidental capturing of unwanted species, in fishing gear and nets. Along with slaughtering these calm fish, tourism gives reason to be a threat to the species as it can interrupt the feeding and breeding of sharks; along with being injured by the boat propellers. For example, in tropical tourist towns, many people spend money to be able to want to swim, take photos with the world’s largest fish, and even just watch the giants live in their natural habitat. The operation of whale shark watching is widely considered to be controversial because some tourist paid companies hand feed the sharks giving them reason to unnaturally live in places stripped of plankton. The hand-fed sharks are guaranteed to show up to places that can pose a threat to them if the tourist boats leave. Many people worry that sharks will learn and take advantage of the free food for prolonged periods of time, and may suffer ill effects both physiologically and behaviorally.