The whale shark (scientifically known as Rhincodon typus) is the biggest fish currently living on Earth. They can grow up to 60 feet long and can weigh up to 21 tons. Despite their massive size, there is no need to fear these sharks, as they only eat plankton. Whale sharks are gentle giants with brownish skin and a pattern of lighter lines and circles resembling a checker board. They can be found around the world, but only in areas that are tropical or have relatively warm waters. Whale sharks exist in temperatures between 64 and 86°F, but they prefer surface waters between 70 and 77°F.
On October 7, 2011, a whale shark was found near the coast of Portugal for the first time. This area is not considered to be part of their normal range, but the water temperature that day was within the prefered range of the shark. Since the whale shark has never been seen in that area before, it may indicate that their worldwide range is growing larger with increased water surface temperatures around the globe. Whale sharks are currently listed as vulnerable (high risk of extincition in the wild), and research still needs to be done to figure out their migration patterns. Eco-tourism to see whale sharks in some countries is helping to expand the scientific knowledge about these creatures, but it is clear that much more research needs to be done to understand them and help to save them in the wild.
-by Sarah Rodeghero
Rodrigues, N.V., Correia, J.P.S., Gracas, J.T.C., Rodrigues, F., Pinho, R., & Hirofumi, M. (2012). First record of a whale shark Rhincodon typus in continental Europe. Journal of Fish Biology. 81, 1427-29.