Three whale sharks left of six brought from Taiwan in 2006-2007
ATLANTA, Georgia––Trixie the whale shark, who could have lived up to 130 years in the wild, died on November 27, 2020 after just 14 years at the Georgia Aquarium.
Trixie, believed to have been about 32 feet long, still about eight feet short of her anticipated full adult size, died after “having difficulty navigating the habitat earlier in the day,” the Georgia Aquarium announced via Facebook.
The aquarium posted with the announcement an old photo of Trixie that did not show what appear to have been mouth injuries, shown in more recent photos and video taken by aquarium visitors.
Trixie’s death left the Georgia Aquarium with just one of the original four whale sharks it acquired from Taiwan in 2006, a female named Alice.
Visitors swim with whale sharks at $190-$234 a pop
Trixie and Alice shared their 6.3-million-gallon exhibit with two other whale sharks, Taroko and Yushan, brought from Taiwan in 2007 following the death of one of their original male companions, Ralph, on January 12, 2007.
The other original male whale shark at the Georgia Aquarium, Norton, died on June 18, 2007, just over two weeks after Taroko and Yushan arrived.
All four of the original Georgia Aquarium whale sharks were named after the principal characters in the 1955-1956 CBS situation comedy series The Honeymooners.
As well as each other, the Georgia Aquarium whale sharks share their exhibit with 5,000 humans per year, who pay from $190 to $234 apiece to swim, dive, and snorkel among them.
Force-feeding may have killed Ralph
Associated Press mentioned after Ralph and Norton died that “Some aquarium experts believe a chemical (trichlorfon) used to treat the whale sharks’ tank for parasites caused the two big sharks to stop eating, and led to a cascading series of problems that ultimately caused their deaths.”
But Ralph “had been forcibly fed for months, a practice that may have punctured his stomach and caused an infection [peritonitis] that led to his death,” reported Brenda Goodman of The New York Times, based on a necropsy led by Robert Hueter, senior scientist and director of the center for shark research at the Mote Marine Laboratory in Sarasota, Florida.
The necropsy panel “recommended using [feeding] tubes with more rounded ends in the future to prevent injuries,” Goodman said.
“The results of the necropsy have increased scrutiny of the 16-month-old, $290 million facility,” Goodman added.
502-day average lifespan in captivity
The only other aquarium to keep whale sharks, at the time, was the Okinawa Churaumi Aquarium, which has exhibited at least one whale shark continuously since 1980.
The current Okinawa Churaumi Aquarium, opened in 2002, replaced the original facility, called the Okinawa Ocean Expo Park, opened in 1975. Sixteen whale sharks kept at the original facility survived an average of just 502 days in captivity.
The Okinawa Churaumi Aquarium currently has two whale sharks, a male and a female, one of whom has lived there for 18 years; the other, for 11 years.
At least two other aquariums have exhibited whale sharks in recent years, and one other intended to until stopped by protest.
Six whale sharks on display in China
TakePart editorial director for environmental issues Todd Woody said he saw six whale sharks at Chimelong Ocean Kingdom in Zhuhai, China, during a June 2016 visit.
Opened in 2014, Chimelong Ocean Kingdom superseded the Resorts World Sentosa Marine Life Park in Singapore as the world’s biggest, two years after the Marine Life Park wrested the title from the Georgia Aquarium.
The Resorts World Sentosa Marine Life Park, then in development, announced in late 2006 that it would display whale sharks, but withdrew the plan after encountering strong opposition from the Singapore SPCA, the Nature Society of Singapore, and the Animal Concerns Research & Education Society (ACRES), whose then-executive director, Louis Ng, is now a member of the Singapore parliament.
Allegedly exhibited without permits in Dubai
The Atlantis Hotel on Palm Jumeirah, Dubai, United Arab Emirates, exhibited a juvenile whale shark from approximately the beginning of October 2008 until March 2010, allegedly without first obtaining the required government permits.
Atlantis vice president Steve Kaiser said “it released the 13-foot female whale shark into the Persian Gulf, but did not provide documentation,” and “said the shark was in good health when released,” reported Associated Press writer Adam Schreck.
Continued Schreck, “Outsiders were not invited for the safety of the shark, he said. Employees outside the hotel’s massive aquarium, which contains 65,000 fish, stingrays and other sea creatures, said they had been instructed not to speak to the media about the shark.”
Whale shark tourism in Philippines & Malaysia
There were also two much less formal attempts to exhibit whale sharks in the Philippines in 2001. Local fishers reportedly exhibited a 20-foot whale shark of unknown gender at Rapu-Rapu and a 15-foot female whale shark with two offspring at Barangay Cawayan, attracting crowds for about a week at each site before the Philippine Department of Environment & Natural Resources intervened.
Fifty miles west of Rapu-Rapu, the Donsol Whale Shark Interaction Center introduced whale shark tourism to the world in 1998.
The waters around the eastern Philippines may be a whale shark birthing area, World Wildlife Fund whale shark tracking project manager Elson Aca told media in March 2009, after local activists released a 15-inch-long whale shark they found tied by the tail on a beach in the town of Pilar. Aca said the baby was “arguably the smallest living whale shark in recorded history.”
Only embryos discovered in a dead female whale shark in 1996 were smaller.
Whale shark tourism is also now established in Malaysia.
“Whale sharks come close to Sabah’s west coast between March and May,” the New Straits Times reported in May 2005. “Boatloads of people often head out to see them,” and sometimes to swim among them, “in the waters off Tanjung Aru, Likas Bay, Karambunai, Pulau Gaya and Labuan.”
Whale sharks in U.S. waters
If the Georgia Aquarium seeks to replace Trixie with another whale shark, it might be able to find a rescue case relatively close to home.
Whale sharks, not common anywhere, are especially rare in U.S. waters, but the K. brevis algae associated with red tides killed a juvenile whale shark who washed up at Sanibel Island, Florida, on June 22, 2018.
Earlier, the April 2010 Deepwater Horizon oil spill is believed to have killed an unknown number of whale sharks off coastal Louisiana and Mississippi.
University of Southern Mississippi researcher Eric Hoffmayer, studying whale sharks in the northern Gulf of Mexico since 2002, explained to Janet McConaughey of Associated Press that whale sharks are surface feeders, sucking in plankton, fish eggs, and small fish, much like baleen whales. If whale sharks ingested oil, it might rapidly cause them to suffocate and sink.
More than a third of all the documented whale shark sightings in the northern Gulf of Mexico since Hoffmayer began his investigations were in the oil spill zone, he said.
Whale shark sightings were up before oil spill
The number of reported whale shark sightings in the northern Gulf of Mexico had increased from an average of about 80 per year to nearly twice as many in 2009, Hoffmayer added, including some reports from along the Florida panhandle and coastal Alabama, where whale sharks were not known to have been seen in 25 years.
But whether the increased sightings were because there were more whale sharks, or simply because more people were looking for them and reporting sightings, Hoffmayer could not say.
What he did know was that a week before the oil spill, aerial photos showed as many as 90 whale sharks in one large group about 70 miles southwest of Port Fourchon, Louisiana, about 60 miles from the western edge of the spill.
That sighting “came as part of a two-day excursion organized by the director of a documentary being filmed about marine biologist Sylvia Earle, creator of the Mission Blue Foundation,” McConaughey mentioned.
Taiwan now prohibits whale shark killing & captures
Rescuing whale sharks from red tides or oil spills would entail a high risk of failure, and the death of more whale sharks.
But the Georgia Aquarium does not have many other options for obtaining whale sharks.
Certainly any aquarium wanting to exhibit whale sharks will have to look beyond Taiwan, which effective at the beginning of 2008 introduced “a total ban on catching and selling whale sharks and whale shark meat,” Taiwan Fisheries Agency spokesperson Lan Wei-tern told Craig Simons and Mark Davis of the Atlanta Journal-Constitution.
Wrote Simons and Davis, “In 1995, according to records, Taiwan caught 270 whale sharks. In 2001, the catch dwindled to ‘about 100,’ said Zhuang Shouzheng, an associate professor at National Taiwan Ocean University. The next year, 2002, Taiwan set an 80-fish quota of whale sharks. Also that year, the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora [CITES] classified whale sharks as ‘vulnerable to extinction.’”
Taiwan phased out catching whale sharks by setting quotas of 60 who could be caught in 2006 and 30 who could be caught in 2007.
Guru defends whale sharks in India
The Maldives prohibited hunting or capturing whale sharks in 1995. The Philippines did likewise in 1998, followed by India in 2001.
The Indian ban went unenforced for two years, while fishers along the Saurashtra coast continued to kill about 250 whale sharks per year.
In 2003, however, the Gujarat guru Morari Bapu, one of the most influential of contemporary Hindu spiritual leaders, blessed a whale shark who had become entangled in a net off Dwarka, Saurashtra, and began campaigning on behalf of whale sharks as part of his religious mission.
“Whale sharks come to Saurashtra coast to give birth and end up getting brutally killed,” Bapu told Indian Express reporter Janyala Srinivas. “I reasoned with the fishers by comparing the whale shark with a daughter who comes home to give birth. Instead of death we should give them respect,” Bapu said.
“Holy man’s words tamed greed”
Observed Srinivas, “The holy man’s words have indeed tamed greed. The powerful Kharwa community [a fishing subcaste] have also fallen in line. The Kharwas worship whales, which are mammals, as an incarnation of Lord Hanuman,” Srinivas explained, “but since the whale shark is classified as a fish, they had been hunting it without religious qualms.”
Bapu argued, successfully, that whale sharks return to the Saurashtra coast, on the eastern edge of the Arabian Sea, from as far as Australia and Mexico to give birth near the fishing ports of Veraval, Dwarka, Diu, Mangrol, and Porbandar.
This argument may have been undercut somewhat by a 2018 study published by the journal Marine Ecology Progress, which reported, based on analysis of nearly 4,200 photographs of some 1,200 whale sharks taken in three areas in the western Indian Ocean and the Persian Gulf, that most swim only about 200 miles from their primary feeding area.
“Just two made the 2,000-kilometer [1,200 mile] journey from one territory off the coast of Mozambique to another off Tanzania,” wrote Science deputy news editor David Malakoff.
Big whale sharks now scarce
Whale sharks were first scientifically identified in April 1828, by British military doctor Andrew Smith, working from a specimen harpooned in Table Bay, near Cape Town, South Africa. Smith in 1849 published a more detailed description of the species.
Whale sharks were formally identified in Indian waters in 1868.
Like 210 other shark species recognized as endangered or threatened by the International Union for the Conservation of Nature, whale sharks are jeopardized chiefly by maritime poaching to fill Asian demand for shark fin soup, a staple dish at traditional Chinese weddings, especially among affluent emigré communities living outside the nation of China.
Among the many indications that whale sharks are in trouble are a steep decline in reported sightings since 2016 at the Ningaloo Reef Marine Park, a World Heritage Site in Western Australia, together with findings by researchers at the University of Western Australia that while whale sharks measuring between 43 and 49 feet were relatively often seen from India to Belize before 1995, sightings in recent years have consisted almost exclusively of juveniles, less than 23 feet in length.
This suggests that larger and older whale sharks may have already been hunted nearly out of existence.