This new National Geographic report is enough to break anyone’s heart: A whale shark was spotted offshore from Hawaii’s Lana’i Island by free-divers with a thick fishing net rope wrapped around its neck.
With scars around its body where the rope had clearly been cutting into its skin, the two divers – who work on protecting endangered species for the O’ahu Army Natural Resources Program – felt they had no choice but to step in. With the help of their son and a wildlife control manager for Pulama Lana’i, they managed to cut the rope away using a small serrated blade, through several dives, without any breathing equipment.
The rope was covered in barnacles, which indicates that it had been around the whale shark for several months. Generally very solitary animals that don’t like to be prodded by humans, the fact that this one stayed around as the divers painstakingly cut the rope away hints at how cognizant the animal was of its own plight.
Although injured, it looks like it will survive its ordeal. At roughly 20 years of age, it still has another half-century left to go, at least.
It’s great that this story had a happy ending, but the fact that it needed to be rescued in the first place becomes all the more tragic when you consider just how magnificent whale sharks are.
Not only are they the largest type of shark, but they are also the largest fish of any kind alive today (sorry, Megalodon). They often move distances of around 10,000 kilometers (about 6,214 miles) every year – to put it in perspective, that’s about a quarter of Earth’s circumference. We can easily identify individuals, because, like human fingerprints, each whale shark has a unique spot pattern.
According to the WWF, these globally distributed beasties still provide us with plenty of mysteries. Just as an example, they give birth to live young, but curiously enough, this has never been directly observed, just inferred.
Apart from being intelligent, gentle giants, they also provide a useful measure of ecological health for conservationists. Whether hunting alone or (more rarely) in large numbers, they appear wherever their food source – plankton – does. Being the first “link” in a massive food chain, plankton numbers are a proxy for ecosystem health, and whale shark presence is a proxy too, by default.
Sadly, according to the latest assessment by the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN), Rhincodon typus is listed as endangered – and this video gives you a clue as to why.
As it happens, fisheries tend to coincide along points that are popular gathering areas for whale sharks, which means that lethal impacts by boat and accidental catches happen far more often than they should. At the same time, whale sharks themselves are sometimes intentionally caught by certain groups and countries, with various products still proving to be fairly valuable.
Altogether, the damage shows: There has been a population decline of about 63 percent in the Indo-Pacific group of whale sharks, and a 30 percent drop in the Atlantic group in the last 75 years – a huge drop, considering this represents just three generations of whale shark.
Fortunately, in 2017, governments gave whale sharks much needed extra protections. Now part of appendix I to the Convention on the Conservation of Migratory Species of Wild Animals (CMS), they are currently shielded from domestic killing or capture. Their habitats are secured too – but only time will tell how effective such measures will be.
[H/T: National Geographic]