The gentle giants of the ocean: Behemoth whale sharks up close

Few creatures on the planet inspire such awe and wonder. They are the largest shark species, and the largest fish on earth. These are whale sharks, behemoths of the deep and they are as mysterious as they are enormous. They reach an incredible 16m in length (55 feet) and might weigh as much as 45,000kg (100,000lbs), yet they have never harmed a human. Having no typical teeth, they are incapable of inflicting an injury on anyone. Whale sharks filter the water as many whale species do, feeding on plankton, krill, fish eggs, and a few small fish. Baleen are the giant combs that separate food from water as it passes through the gaping mouth of this shark. They cruise through oceans around the planet, occupying all tropical areas. They are capable of swimming vast distances and individuals have been tracked in waters on the opposite side of the globe during different seasons. Scuba divers have a particular love and respect for these great beasts and they travel to places like the Galapagos Islands to meet them face to face in their own environment. The currents around the waters off Darwin Island converge to bring food and a diverse and abundant assortment of marine animals. The whale sharks follow these currents in the months of September to November. They can be found swimming around the islands in remote waters. Yet, scientists still do not fully understand these animals or what brings them here during this time. Almost every whale shark sighted here is a pregnant female. They are not feeding as they drift along on the currents and little is known about how and where they give birth. Sightings of baby whale sharks are almost no-existent. Whale sharks have no ability to fight predators. Their only means of defense is to outswim them or dive deep. They have been able to dive to a depth of 1,900m (6,200ft) where predators cannot follow. Their reaction to humans is similar. If undisturbed, they will tolerate divers swimming near them. They occasionally exhibit curiosity and will change course to swim near people in the water. If a whale shark is concerned about a scuba diver coming to close, they can easily swim much more quickly than any human, or they can dive and quickly be away from people. These whale sharks have been spotted near Darwin Island in late 2019 and early 2020. The divers studying these magnificent sharks were able to record incredible close up video as the sharks passed by them very closely. It is hoped that when we learn more about them, and also how to fully appreciate them, our respect will bring important measures to help the whale sharks remain in our oceans. To lose them forever would be an unspeakable tragedy.