It’s not a whale. It’s a whale shark!

Or maybe it should be a ‘Whark?’ Whatever you want to call it, August 30th is International Whale Shark Day! Before you start running away with the theme from “Jaws” pounding in your ears, don’t be alarmed. With a face like a whale and a body like a shark, these seemingly frightening creatures are actually gentle giants.

Found in tropical oceans in areas like the Maldives, the Philippines and Mexico, they feed mainly on plankton and are by far the largest living non-mammalian vertebrate. But despite being docile — they pose absolutely no threat to divers — these creatures are still hunted for their highly prized fins and meat.

As a vulnerable species, we need to protect whale sharks and their ocean home. Check out these five facts about whale sharks and then raise a glass of plankton to celebrate International Whale Shark Day!

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1. First Things First, It’s a Type of Shark

While the name confuses some, the whale shark is indeed a species of shark. In fact, it’s the largest living species of shark. Whale sharks weigh 12 tons on average and can grow to more than 14 meters in length. Despite their gigantic size, whale sharks’ teeth are only 6 millimeters long.

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2. Each Whale Shark Has a Unique Pattern

Much like a human fingerprint, each whale shark’s skin is completely unique. This allows researchers to run visual analytics to correctly identify and track individual whale sharks.

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3. Slow-Moving, Shallow Depths

Whale sharks move slowly in the ocean. They swim at about 5 kilometers per hour but can dive up to 1,000 meters. However, they prefer to roam shallow seas with 50-meter depth. This makes them exceptionally vulnerable to ship collisions and fishing nets.

Whale Shark Swimming

A whale shark swimming, shot from behind. Source: Giphy /

4. Whale Sharks Are Under Threat

The International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN) Red List regards the species as one of the most vulnerable marine animals in the world. Indonesia, through its Ministry of Maritime Affairs and Fisheries, has enacted a law for whale shark conservation. Unfortunately, law enforcement — much like the whale shark — has little to no teeth.

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5. Whale Sharks Are Vulnerable to Unsustainable Fishing

Like most sharks, whale sharks breed slowly. This means it takes longer for their population to rebound, making them dangerously vulnerable to overfishing and destructive fishing practices. Most whale shark deaths can be attributed to the global shark fin trade, which is illegal but often flies under the radar.

Whale Shark

A whale shark swims among a school of fish. Source: Gipphy / GifBay