Why are whale sharks important to the ecosystem?
The whale shark is an incredibly important part of our ecosystem. As the plankton-patrollers that feed on microscopic fish and other small ocean animals, whale sharks prevent the number of plankton living in the ocean from rising to an abnormal level, which causes the formation of algal blooms.
Algal blooms have an incredibly toxic effect on fish, mammals, and birds that eat them which continues onto the next part of the food chain - us. The whale shark eats more than 20kg of plankton a day which is beneficial as they are consuming healthy amounts, creating waters full of nutrients and letting the ecosystem thrive. Like every other shark, whale sharks are fundamental to the food web (they are apex predators) as they can regulate prey levels within the ocean.
What is a whale shark?
Whale sharks are the biggest fish on the planet measuring over 40 feet long (in some circumstances they can reach 65 feet!) and can weigh a whopping 19,000kg. Whale sharks migrate to ocean waters during the warm and tropical seasons aside from the Mediterranean. You can spot whale sharks in the Pacific Ocean from Mexico to California, Australia to Brazil and many more incredible destinations around the world.
You may think, “Wow, that is a deadly creature - why would I want to be so close?!” However, whale sharks aren’t a threat or known danger to humans. They are quiet, gentle, and sometimes playful creatures that are similar in nature to humpback whales, making snorkeling alongside them an enjoyable and bucket list experience.
How can we support conservation?
There are several steps that can be taken to ensure the conservation of whale sharks in their natural habitat.
Learn as much as you can about whale sharks and why they are so important to the ecosystem. Sharks are often put into the scary animal category as that is how they are seen in the news, however without them our ecosystem would be in danger. Learning about their eating habits, migrating patterns and their contribution can change the way we view sharks.
Respect our oceans
A fun fact about the ocean is that it helps us to breathe, as the phytoplankton in the sea provides at least 50% of the oxygen on Earth. Our oceans regulate the climate, which is a very important food source and provides humans with the ability to profit from it. Reducing our carbon footprint is becoming even more important as we are seeing global warming detrimentally affect our oceans. From changing weather patterns to the increase in sea surface level temperatures to rising sea levels, we are seeing polar ice caps melting, loss of marine breeding grounds and ocean acidification.
When diving with whale sharks
If you’re planning to swim with the whale sharks in Ningaloo, make sure that you are following the guidelines set out by your dive company and instructors. Always keep yourself at a safe distance of 3-4 meters, do not chase, touch, or feed the fish, and don’t block the path of a whale shark.
Check the legitimacy of the dive company
Although a lot of whale shark dive companies are legitimate and operate under ethical circumstances, some don’t. Do your research on the area, read reviews, research how their dives are carried out and steer clear of companies that are unethical in their practices (e.g. if they feed whale sharks to entice an encounter).
What would happen if whale sharks became extinct?
It is believed that if whale sharks were to become extinct there would be a long-term effect on plankton levels in the ocean which would significantly impact the food web.
Simple things you can do every day
You may not think that you are able to be the change that our oceans need being only one person, but that’s not true. You can take simple steps in your everyday life to aid in the health of our oceans.
Single-use plastics are being dumped into our ocean in troves which is significantly harming our ocean life. Whale sharks can be directly harmed as their stomachs become full of plastic debris that they can’t digest, making them starve.
Recycle and participate in beach cleans
Recycling reduces the number of new plastics that are being dumped into the ocean. Partaking in beach cleans protects our oceans as the waste that has been left on the beaches isn’t being swept out further, polluting it.
Reduce seafood consumption/source sustainable seafood
Choosing options such as shellfish and wild salmon strongly benefits our ecosystem as these animals aren’t fed on by sharks. Check where you are purchasing your seafood from as there are so many unsustainable companies that poach and over-fish, effectively destroying ecosystems.