W is for Whale Shark
The whale shark is the biggest shark that has its mouth at the very front of its head and is thought to be the largest fish in the sea. It has a wide, flat head, a rounded snout and small eyes. The distinguishable coloration includes light yellow stripes and large white dots on dark gray skin. There are 2 dorsal fins, 2 pectoral fins and 5 large gill slots. Although this fish is not part of the whale family, it has a size that rivals many whale species. Whale sharks can grow up to 50 feet in length and can weigh up to 15 tons. It has a mouth that can stretch to 4 feet and a jaw lined with over 3,000 teeth. Yet, despite its intimidating presence, this creature is completely harmless to humans. It is estimated that whale sharks can live 100¬150 years.
The whale shark prefers tropical and warm temperate waters all over the world, spending time in deep water and coastal areas, swimming near the surface of the water. Whale sharks are predominantly solitary creatures, although pairs are seen occasionally.
The whale sharks are filter feeders, which means that they strain small animals from the water. They do this by swimming with their mouth open to obtain large masses of water filled with organisms. When the whale shark closes its mouth, the gill rakers are used to filter food from the water. The organisms that do not pass through the gills are eaten. The organisms that serve as nourishment are plankton, krill, small fish, thimble jellies and squids. Whale sharks are common in March, April and May near Placencia. These sea creatures appear like clockwork during those months at Gladden Split, where large aggregations of grouper and snapper gather to spawn with the full moon each of those months. The large amounts of released gametes (eggs and sperm) from the spawning provide a plentiful source of protein rich food for the whale sharks. Whale sharks do not have to travel quickly through the water to filter feed; most often they travel less than 3 miles per hour.
The whale sharks reach sexual maturity at age 30 when they are able to mate and reproduce. Researchers are mixed as to whether these sharks lay eggs or give birth to live young. Just born whale sharks are generally 2 feet in length.
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