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Whale Sharks

Fun to swim with!

In wildness is the preservation of the world.
Henry David Thoreau, Walking(1862)

Every year in February/March Whale Sharks visit St Helena, and you can swim with them!

 

Whale Sharks

Below: About • Swimming with Whale Sharks

About

Whale Shark / Human comparison
Global range
Global range

We get annual visits from Whale Sharks rhincodon typus - the largest known extant fish species, averaging nearly 10m long and sometimes weighing around 20 tonnes (the average weight is 9 tonnes). These enormous and completely harmless{1} animals are stunning to watch. To get an idea of their size look at the comparison image (left)

Although normally solitary creatures, at the end of January 2013 a group of 17 Whale Sharks were spotted around St Helena, much to the delight of ecologists and tourists alike. They have come back in increasing numbers, every year since…

…and you can go out and swim with them!

Despite their size Whale Sharks eat only plankton, including copepods, krill, fish eggs and even baby squid or fish. To collect this prey they have an enormous mouth and some Whale Shark watchers are concerned that they might be swallowed, albeit accidentally. But as Dr Alistair Dove, a leading Whale Shark expert, explains: Their mouth may be up to 1.5m wide, but their throat is not much bigger than a £1 coin, so they couldn’t swallow you even if they wanted to.{2}

Whale Sharks are officially classified as Endangered{a}.

It is now thought that Whale Sharks may come to St Helena to breed. They arrive each year in almost equal numbers of males and females, and females in the early stages of pregnancy are sometimes observed here. Actual mating or pupping of Whale Sharks has never been observed anywhere in the world, but mating seems to be the best explanation for their annual visits to St Helena.

Whale Shark
{b}

Swimming with Whale Sharks

Whale Sharks are docile creatures and there is no record of one ever having attacked or attempted to attack a human. Indeed they will happily allow humans to ‘hitch a ride’, though this is prohibited because of potential disturbance to the animal (see rules, below).

All the firms that offer Dolphin watching trips also offer Whale Shark trips. In addition the Dive Companies also offer both swimming-with and diving-with trips.

To protect the species he following rules were published regarding human interaction with Whale Sharks:

I was alongside the Whale Sharks for over half an hour. It was an experience that will never leave me.
Andy Hobson, scubamagazine.co.uk, October 2018

St Helena has become my favourite place to encounter these gentle giants. Nowhere else have I seen so many large adult sharks in such a small area.
Danny Copeland, videographer

A report by the World Wildlife Fund and others, published in January 2019, warned that Whale Sharks could be at risk from plastic pollution in the world’s oceans. Animals that eat plankton and smaller algae cannot discriminate between their food and micro-plastics the report said. The micro-plastics are not digested so stay in the animal’s stomach, which fills up leaving no room for food and the animal dies. The report calls for a global reduction in the use of plastic.

Governor Lisa Phillips with a Whale Shark, 2017
Governor Lisa Phillips with a Whale Shark, 2017

On 22nd February 2019 the St Helena National Trust held a ‘Whale Shark Festival’ at the The Mule Yard, which included a virtual-reality whale shark ‘experience’. It is thought the event will be repeated in future years.

Laugh at funny Whale Sharks humour - LOL

Credits:
{a} ‘IUCN Red List of Threatened Species’, 3.1{b} St Helena National Trust

Footnotes:
{1} To humans! Whale Sharks have very large mouths, but as filter feeders they feed almost exclusively on plankton.{2} Quoted from the Tourist Office Blog, February 2017.

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