Whale sharks are believed to reach lengths of more than 60 feet and can be found worldwide in warm waters and tropical seas, except the Mediterranean. Despite their size, these sharks feed on some of the smallest organisms in the ocean. Their large mouths serve as a filter to extract plankton and other microorganisms from the water.
These sharks are thought to have evolved 200 million years ago, and yet, not much is known about them. They are mostly solitary, slow moving animals with unknown migration patterns. They are an easy target for intentional fishing and incidental entanglement due to their size and speed. In the last 75 years, the population of known whale sharks has been reduced by 50 percent. Because of this, they were reclassified this year as endangered by the International Union for the Conservation of Nature (IUCN).
The reclassification of the whale shark as endangered is coupled with other conservation measures for their long term protection. The capture of whale sharks is illegal within U.S. waters and in other countries, including Indonesia. There is also increased international pressure to stop the market for whale shark products. This includes tracking and security at ports to stop illegal fishermen.
With these protections and the increased awareness throughout the international community, the hope is to restore native whale shark populations and protect them for future generations.
To read more about the efforts to protect whale sharks, click here.