By identifying India’s first individual whale shark, Gujarat has taken a big step forward in understanding this often misunderstood...

Posted by: Hitesh Kamaliya on

Whale sharks - the world's biggest fish species - swam the waters of the world even before dinosaurs evolved. And yet scientists today don't even have basic statistics on this endangered species. Exact numbers? Your guess is as good as anyone else's. Besides, breeding grounds of this mammoth fish are a mystery and no one has photographed a newborn whale shark. Its reproductive system was understood as late as 1996.

It is for this reason that marine scientists are excited about India identifying its first individual whale shark recently along the Gujarat coast as part of the Whale Shark Conservation Project. Detailed photographs taken of the fish will be sent to ECOCEAN, which maintains the global whale shark database and coordinates international research.

"To preserve this prehistoric species, we need to understand its habitat, migratory patterns, its DNA and breeding grounds," says Dhiresh Joshi, coordinator of Wildlife

Trust of India (WTI), one of the partners on the conservation effort. "Gujarat has already done a lot in conserving the whale shark, but with this endeavour, we are joining hands with the global community."

Once the ECOCEAN database has enough numbers, scientists hope to get details on whether the schools found in Asia, the Caribbean, Australia and the Far East are individual communities that never meet each other or if they breed with each other. They also want to know migratory patterns. One recently, a radio-collared whale shark travelled 13,000 km within a few months, giving some idea of the long distances they travel.

"Gujarat will play a crucial role in conserving the whale shark because the species congregates in unusually large numbers here," Joshi adds. "Satellite imaging from Isro has shown the Gujarat coast is ideal for plankton breeding, the whale shark's favourite meal, but we need to understand the food highways better."

In Vietnam, the whale shark is the deity ‘Ca Ong', which translates as ‘Sir Fish'
In Kenya it got the name ‘papa shillingi' from the myth that God threw shillings upon the shark which are now its spots
Javanese also refer to the stars by calling it ‘geger lintang', meaning ‘stars on the back'

Although massive, whale sharks are docile fish and sometimes allow swimmers to hitch a ride. In fact, fishermen often take advantage of the fish's cool nature, sail close to it and harpoon it to death

They are found in all tropical seas and migrate every spring to Australia given the abundance of plankton there. They are sighted in large numbers along the Gujarat coast as well

In Gujarat, fishermen killed this species to use its liver oil as waterproofing in traditional boats. In the Far East, its fin is used for the infamous shark-fin soup

Fortunately human beings are not on the menu of this fish! Its favourite meal is plankton or drifting organisms and plants that it gulps down with huge amounts of water

In a unique endeavour, Gujarat made Ram Kathakar Morari Bapu ambassador of the ‘Save the Whale Shark'
campaign. This was the first time that a spiritual leader was roped in for an environmental cause and was effective in convincing fishermen not to kill the species. India has put the whale shark under Schedule I of the Wildlife Protection Act (1972) and banned its fishing and trade in 2001. Maximum punishment for killing a whale shark is seven years imprisonment.