But to understand why this interaction is so ‘surprising,’ we need to first understand a little bit about these graceful creatures. Whale sharks, Rhincodon typus, are the largest fish in the sea, named in part due to the enormity of their size – they can grow up t0 14 meters, 46 feet and weigh 15 tons – and by how they eat. The whale shark is unique among most other sharks (with the basking shark a notable exception) in that, similar to many whales, these charismatic creatures use their large mouths to filter feed, filtering plankton, krill, tiny fish and squid as it strains water through its gills.
Despite being the largest fish, whale sharks are hard to find, and so relatively little is known about them. Luckily, new research tools such as tagging, DNA studies and photo identification, have started to paint a better picture of whale shark behavior. These sharks can be found in all the tropical oceans (except the Mediterranean Sea), and are usually found offshore although at times they can be found inshore. They can undertake large migrations – hundreds and hundreds of miles long, and can dive to a mile deep in the oceans. Whale sharks are slow moving, solitary creatures, rarely found in groups, and there are only a few places in the world – Belize, parts of Australia, and Cozumel, where these sharks can be consistently found.
That is, until recently. The new National Geographic article, entitled ‘Sharing with the Sharks,’ describes encounters by fishermen near New Guinea. This loner species is typically non-aggressive and indifferent toward humans. However, the sharks photographed in New Guinea exhibit a more typical shark-like behavior – they congregate around fishermen and nets full of shrimp, nosing at the nets and coming to near the boats looking for handouts. Check out the amazing photos of the encounters. While this behavior would be common for many sharks, it is atypical for whale sharks. However, groups of whale sharks can at times be found seasonally during plankton blooms or mass coral spawns, so it is likely that this is a behavioral response to an abundance of food. It just so happens that in New Guinea, this food abundance is enhanced due to the activities of fishermen, turning these normally docile fish into, well, sharks.