Whale sharks are the ocean’s largest fish. Growing up to forty feet in length, their size alone warrants admiration. But these colossal creatures don’t shred and tear prey like many ocean hunters, and pose no threat to humans. Rather, they’re docile sea giants that filter feed with four-foot wide mouths.
Recently I attended a whale shark feeding at the largest aquarium in the world – the Georgia Aquarium in Atlanta – to learn more about filter feeding.
When a whale shark opens her mouth and distends her jaw, she sucks in a large rush of water and shuts her mouth, sieving the water with her gills. She has very fine gill rakers that strain her meal from the water.
The four whale sharks at the Georgia Aquarium – two males and two females – were trained how to identify a color-coded ladle and feed in a sea pen before they arrived at the facility. During each twice-daily feeding session, these whale sharks will correctly recognize and swim alongside their assigned boat to eat.
Even though these colossal creatures are the biggest fish in the sea and were first described almost two hundred years ago, there is surprisingly little known about them.
This beautiful two-toned, spotted fish species is currently listed as endangered. The Georgia Aquarium – the only facility to house whale sharks outside of Asia – is currently conducting multiple research studies on this docile fish.