In spite of being the world’s largest fish, we know incredibly little about whale sharks. For instance, where do they go to breed, give birth or spend the first years of their lives? These unanswered questions are crucial to informing conservation strategies to protect them. Yet, as deep ocean dwelling creatures, their mysteries are difficult to unravel.
In Galapagos, there is a unique population of passing whale sharks. First off, in contrast to other whale shark hotspots around the world, made up of primarily immature males, Galapagos’ visitors are mainly mature females. Even more peculiarly, of those sighted, 90% are thought to be pregnant. Galapagos, therefore, represents a unique location to solve some of these unanswered questions.
Galapagos Conservation Trust has supported the Galapagos Whale Shark Project for a number of years to do just this. Using state of the art satellite tags, the team is tracking whale sharks passing through the Galapagos Marine Reserve (GMR) to depths previously not possible. To date, the team has tracked over 60 whale sharks, highlighting that the GMR, and particularly Darwin island to the north of the Archipelago, are important locations. The tracks suggest that Darwin island provides an important point of navigation for the sharks on their way to feeding grounds in the Pacific Ocean.
In their most recent trip in 2019, a standout success was tracking whale shark #184027, or as she has later become known ‘Hope’, who traveled over 3000nm towards the Southern Pacific Ocean around French Polynesia in just a few months. With the outbreak of COVID-19, positive news stories seem increasingly hard to come by. The aptly named Hope, however, has given us some much-needed cheer. Making a dramatic U-turn, she is now headed back GMR. Whilst it is early days, this is potentially an extremely important track, as it will be the very first migration fully recorded by satellite data. Up until now, the only records of a migration journey were through photo identification, whilst the longest ever satellite track is just one way and its validity is disputed.
In what is otherwise a difficult period for everyone, we hope that this whale shark’s epic journey will be the positive conservation story to lift your spirits today. To follow Hope’s journey, make sure to check in with our blog or donate to support our sharks program.