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The Peculiar Whale Sharks of Indonesia

September 21, 2011
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©Michael Aw/National Geographic

The October issue of National Geographic magazine (on newsstands Sept. 27) will feature a spectacular photo gallery of whale sharks acting rather peculiarly: they are interacting with fishermen.  From my experience in Honduras, these mostly filter-feeding behemoths generally do not like to interact with people, and noisy boats and swimmers quickly scare them away.

Here’s a nice excerpt on this exception from the accompanying article:

Whale sharks are ordinarily loners. But not in one corner of Indonesia. The photographs on these pages, shot some eight miles off the province of Papua, reveal a group of sharks that call on fishermen each day, zipping by one another, looking for handouts near the surface, and nosing the nets—a rare instance when the generally docile fish act, well, like the rest of the sharks.

The story goes on to tell that fishermen go so far as feed the whale sharks snacks to keep them from nibbling on their nets, as seen in the excellent photo gallery.  Again, it’s worth checking out here.

It seems the fishermen have developed a friendly relationship with the whale sharks, which is encouraging for this species classified as ‘Vulnerable’  on the IUCN Red List and whose populations continue to decline.

As pointed out the powerful documentary, Shores of Silence, whale sharks are hunted in the Indian Ocean to sell on the Asian shark fin market.  In Singapore, a set of whale shark fins sells for about $500 (U.S.).   While in China, a set of large fins can sell for more than $10,000.

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2 Comments leave one →
  1. Susanne permalink
    September 21, 2011 1:46 pm

    What’s most worrying about this is that continued human interaction with these animals leads them to be more trusting of people, when quite clearly not all people are to be trusted.

    How many people will learn about this and take advantage for their diabolical hunting for the fins? How many sharks will approach boats expecting handouts, and lose their lives as a result?

    • September 21, 2011 3:54 pm

      Good point. Though I suppose this is the best solution possible. The fishermen aren’t going to give up their livelihoods, so it’s best they find a way to “co-habitate” with the sharks. Perhaps the next step would be domestic legislation, and the fishermen themselves keeping an eye out for poachers.

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