By Simon McPherson. Photo Paul Hilton.
The whale shark or Rhincodon typus is the world’s largest fish and is often found in tropical waters across the globe. This is no ordinary species of shark as they feed on plankton by filtering water through their gills, one of only four species of elasmobranch to feed this way. To put it simply, they are big, spotty and (in my view) amazing animals that are the research topic of many different organisations all over the world.
Some people have negative views on sharks, but to me they are the ultimate apex predator: the lions of the ocean. I believe it is morally unacceptable to be carrying out horrible practices such as shark finning and that it should be compared to owning a tiger skin rug or ivory. So when I heard that whale sharks received international protection, I was overjoyed. Many people have swam alongside these animals and had many magical experiences, including world famous athlete Roberta Mancino. I hope that one day I can swim alongside these gentle giants and enter their world in order to really appreciate them, rather than seeing them in books or documentaries. It is vitally important that more species of shark receive greater protection to ensure a wider audience of people can really appreciate these masters of the sea. There are many reasons why I’m passionate about whale sharks, so here’s a summary as to why I love these spotted giants of the ocean:
(1) The chance to make a difference: So many people don’t seem to truly appreciate how magical these gentle giants are and that sharks don’t deserve the negative image that they have been given throughout the years. To me, the best way to make a difference is by volunteering for marine conservation projects related to whale sharks such as the Maldives Whale Shark Research Programme. In marine conservation we have a unique responsibility and opportunity to genuinely make a life-changing difference every single day. When life gets tough for threatened species often it these conservation projects that provide the “glue” to hold it all together. They offer the consistency and care that can inspire other people to make a difference for whale sharks. When you think about it what could be better?
(2) They give you vitality and energy: Whilst I’ve not yet had the chance to swim alongside whale sharks, I secretly still feel a child-like wonder when reading books about sharks and believe at the heart of this is the joy and vitality I take from making new discovery every day. Sharks are such amazing creatures that they can often make you laugh and cry and I brim with pride whenever I hear about research projects and conservation efforts that help protect them. I would feel a bit lost without this buzz each day.
(3) The willingness to learn: I am someone who wants to find out more about whale sharks so that I can do what I can to contribute towards the conservation of these animals. I hope that at some point in my career I will have the chance to play my part towards protecting sharks to ensure that they are safeguarded for future generations. I won’t give up and continue my mission to raise awareness of shark conservation, and show how truly amazing whale sharks are.
(4) It was the inspiration to my career: All through my life I have been inspired by reading books and watching documentaries about the oceans and its wildlife, especially sharks. So to me what makes whale sharks so special is that they really are the ultimate gentle giants of the sea. I believe my inspiration for wanting a career in marine conservation is having the chance to play my part in whale shark conservation and ensure that more people treasure them, not remove them from the ocean.
Shark conservation is the most important way to help the ocean because as apex predators they are vital to keeping balance in the ecosystem and fish populations healthy, if we remove them the whole food web may collapse. Scientists are still conducting research into sharks so that further action can be taken to ensure that they don’t become extinct. At this moment in time experts are unsure what would happen to the oceans if whale sharks were removed entirely. If this happens in my lifetime I would feel let down and if I don’t stand up and play an active part now I would regret it. So to me it is so important that sharks receive the protection they deserve so that they can live on to inspire, teach and invigorate many others to see the wonders of this planet. In this way my passion and enthusiasm can make a difference for Whale Sharks: The Spotted Gentle Giants of the Ocean.
Simon McPherson lives in Brighton and is currently studying animal management. He has volunteered for many conservation and animal welfare charities including the Marine Conservation Society, Zoological Society of London, RSPB and Cats Protection.