The under water world is a revelation in itself because of the myriad of creatures and marine fish and animals that co-exist in colorful and vibrant harmony. The oceans beckon water lovers to explore its depths and ocean life but the one creature that is a very popular sight that draws divers to it is the Whale Shark.
The Whale Shark is the largest living fish to be found in the oceans. This filter feeder is one fish which unlike its more aggressive extended family is a very gentle and timid creature. Its size belies its gentleness and placid nature. The Whale Shark is identified by its size which can be anything between 14 to 15 meters, with some reports of sightings of 18 meter long Whale Sharks. These fish can weigh up to 47,000 pounds and are recognizable by their grayish black background with white lines running horizontally across the body and white spots on the spaces in between. These spots are one distinguishing trait that tells one Whale Shark apart from the other.
The mouth of the Whale Shark measures up to five feet from end to end with hundreds of fine teeth set in rows. But these teeth are not used to
feed; rather, the Whale Shark is a filter feeder which uses the five sets of massive gills to ingest its food and throw out the water that enters the mouth while feeding on small creatures which includes algae, plankton, squids, anchovies, sardines, mackerel and similar small fish.
The Whale Shark has a body that is made up of cartilage except for a raised backbone line that runs the entire length of the body. Studies have shown that this mammoth fish can carry hundreds of young ones, though majority of them do not complete their birth term and die or are eaten by their siblings while in the mother’s belly.
Whale Sharks, as opposed to their humongous size are calm and docile fishes. They are curious and playful and attack only when provoked. The only danger to a diver would be getting injured by a startled Whale Shark’s powerful tail fin.
These fish move through oceans spanning different continents and are usually found in the warmer
waters of the western and eastern Atlantic Ocean, the Indian Ocean and the eastern Pacific Ocean. They can be seen close to the coasts and usually swim close to the surface and unfortunately become an easy target for fishermen and fishing trawlers that carry out illegal shark hunting.
Today this magnificent creature is on the list of endangered animals that may become extinct if preventive measures are not adopted. The main reason for the decline in the Whale Shark population is the rampant illegal fishing of sharks for their fins, meat and liver which are in demand in Asian countries as delicacies. Also their elusive nature, their slow growth and sexual maturity, erratic reproduction patterns and inter-breeding are causes for their decline.
This timid creature has largely remained hidden away from cameras and researchers who are making efforts to study this shy creature. Their activities and movements of adult and juvenile Whale Sharks have not been accurately documented and their environment is still unknown. But with widespread efforts being made by marine biologists to understand this fish and conservation programs all in place the future does not look so bleak for the Whale Shark.
President Barrack Obama has only recently signed the Shark Conservation Act of 2010 which bans shark fishing or shipping their fins without the remains. They also have put in a clause to reject the import of seafood from countries which allow shark hunting. This has proved to be a shot in the arm for the conservation groups fighting for the Whale Shark.
Maldives, a small island nation and a popular holiday destination sees many scuba divers, both amateurs and professionals, visiting along with the usual honeymooners and vacationers. This is mainly so because in the turquoise waters of the Indian Ocean around this island, especially along the outer rim of the South Ari atoll sees Whale Sharks in abundance all through the year. The thrill of diving in Maldives in these warm waters and encountering the elusive Whale Shark is something which is irresistible. Marine biologists and researchers also flock to this island nation of islets and atolls for this very same reason.
The Maldives Government has recognized the need to protect this endangered creature which is an important reason for their booming tourism economy. The Maldives Whale Shark Research Program (MWSRP), a U.K registered charity has opened its doors in 2006 and in collaboration with the Maldives government has drawn out certain protected areas for the Whale Sharks around the island; a drive that has the support of the local citizens, marine biologists and researchers alike. The MWSRP has also come up with solid programs which include education and awareness programs which seek to stop the practice of Whale Shark hunting, a traditional pursuit of the local fishermen.
The MWSRP has the support of the government in all its conservation endeavors and is dedicated to studying and understanding the Whale Shark – its behavioral aspects, its breeding and reproduction patterns and its movement across the different oceans through genetic mapping and tagging programs.
Strong efforts and laws are put into place to ensure limited boat activity at controlled speeds and restricted tourist movement around the protected areas around the South Ari atoll and Baa atoll.
The hotel industry in Maldives is also doing its bit to help in the conservation process. The Conrad
Resort and Spa at Rangali Island in South Ari is the Maldives base for the MWSRP which sees to its projects and their working and completion from this resort. The hotel arranges one day trips twice every week for its guests to be a part of the photo-identification procedure of all sharks present in that area and understand the work of the MWSRP. The Lily Resort & Spa and the Constance Moofushi Resort have incorporated specialized scuba diving programs under the tutelage of trained and professional divers to experience the beauty of the world under the water. There is no dearth of diving centers which make available trained professionals to help in the diving programs for tourists and amateur divers.
The MWSRP accepts monetary help by way of donations to fund its work and has also started research excursions and welcomes volunteers to join in their programs which include taking pictures, measuring Whale Sharks, making presentations at community workshops and helping to review and make changes to the Whale Shark database. The advantage for the volunteers is the opportunity to get up close with the Whale Shark – the gentle giant of the seas and also be part of a core group which has the ability and focus to protect the Whale Shark from extinction.