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Sunday, April 29, 2007

Whale Sharks

LingtheMerciless posted two sobering posts about the plight of Whale Sharks (Rhincodon typus) in captivity. "Whaleshark Tragedy" concerns the death of a young captive Whale Shark, Ralph, from a perforated stomach. The other, "Whalesharks in fish tanks?" is self-explanatory.

The partial results of a necropsy, released Wednesday, indicate that Ralph succumbed Jan. 11 from peritonitis brought on by a perforated stomach. The 22-foot fish, which had recently lost its appetite and was being force-fed, simply stopped swimming and sank to the floor of the Ocean Voyager exhibit. Within hours, he was pronounced dead.

The clinical answer to his death has done little to quiet other questions.

Did force-feeding the leviathan — using a 5-foot-long PVC pipe, about an inch-and-a-half in diameter — possibly perforate his stomach? A shark expert in Florida believes the feeding tube may have irritated Ralph's gut but didn't cause a hole in it.

[ . . . ]

Robert Hueter, director of the Center for Shark Research at Mote Marine Laboratory in Sarasota, Fla., participated in the necropsy. In addition to the perforation, Ralph's stomach had abrasions, Hueter noted.

Could the force-feedings have caused those scrapes? "I will say only that there's a possibility that the tube contributed to the irritation in the stomach," Hueter said Thursday. The aquarium, Hueter said, was relying on common procedure when it began feeding Ralph and Norton through a tube. "The animals tolerate this very well," Hueter said.
         (Atlanta Journal Constitution  30 March 2007.)

More articles.

I am shocked to discover that force-feeding is a common procedure in aquariums around the world. Chalk another one up for foie gras.

Naomi Rose of the Human Society of the United States: "I can guarantee you, that they'll never be force-feeding whale sharks in the wild."

She earlier asserted,

What killed Ralph, and may yet kill the other whale sharks, are captivity, ignorance and arrogance. Little is known about whale sharks in the wild, which makes knowing how to keep them alive in captivity a bit of a hit-or-miss exercise, one that is academic for aquariums, but life or death for the sharks.
         (Atlanta Journal Constitution  17 Jan 2007.)

Marilee Menard, executive director of the Alliance of Marine Mammal Parks and Aquarium, spins:

Watch the face of a child looking in wonder at a gracefully swimming beluga whale. It's a magical moment, not only for children but for adults, as well. Connecting people to live animals is a powerful, proven way to promote wildlife conservation. Thanks to the Georgia Aquarium, more than 4 million people understand and care more about marine animals, especially belugas and whale sharks.

It is an insult to the aquarium's professional staff, volunteers, members and the city of Atlanta for activist Naomi Rose of the Humane Society of the United States to suggest that it would have been better for Gasper the beluga whale and Ralph the whale shark to die rather than be rescued by the aquarium, where they received excellent care and inspired millions of visitors.
         (Atlanta Journal Constitution  19 Jan 2007.)

Watch this video of the Ocean Voyager tank (containing Whale Sharks) in Georgia Aquarium. Listen to the noise level and note the constant flashes from camera strobes. Whale Sharks grow up to 66 ft (20 m) long. Ralph, a juvenile, was 22 ft (6.7 m) long. They travel over 1250 miles (2000 km) every 100 days, and dive down to 2,500 ft (762 m).

This is the global range of the Whale Shark.

Now think how far removed the 263 ft (80 m) long, 126 ft (38.4 m) wide, 33 ft deep (10 m), Ocean Voyager tank, built to house Whale Sharks, is, from the animals' ocean environment. While a 6.2 million gallon (US) capacity might sound impressive, the 80 m x 38.4 m tank is really smaller than a soccer field.

To put it in human terms, the average height of an adult male in Singapore is 5' 7" (1.71 m), and 5' 9.4" (1.74 m) for USA. For simplicity, lets put it at 5' 7.7" (1.72 m). This is equivalent to confining a human male to a room 22.5 ft (6.85 m) long by 10 ft (3.3 m) wide and 2.8 ft (0.86 m) high for his entire lifetime. Now picture 3 humans in this room. That is the number of Whale Sharks in the tank before Ralph died.

Georgia Aquarium maintains that their Ocean Voyager tank is designed to comfortably hold SIX Whale Sharks.

Picture the living room of a Housing Development Board (HDB) flat / apartment with a ceiling 2.8 ft (0.86 m) high, housing 6 adult human male for their entire lifetime.


At the same time, there nags the question of, how then, do we raise public awareness of these gentle giants? How do we save them before they all disappear?

If the Georgia Aquarium did not take Ralph, he would have become seafood in Taiwan.

Whale Sharks are slow swimmers, and are often found swimming near the surface in search of plankton patches. This behavior makes them easy prey for fishermen.

Totally harmless to humans, Whale Sharks feed on plankton, small crustaceans, small fish, and squid. They suck in water through their enormous mouths and filter out food through gill rakers, sleeve-like structures on their gills.

Whale Shark meat is known in Taiwan as tofusa (Tofu Shark). Commanding prices of US$15 per kg (2.2 lbs), it is prized for its white, high water content flesh, which is said to resemble tofu. It is caught in Penang (Malaysia), Thailand, India, Hong Kong, Taiwan, and the Philippines.

Whale Shark meat is also very popular in Hong Kong.

Market demand is such that even juveniles are not spared.

The method of Whale Shark fishing is brutal.

Once a Whale Shark has been spotted, the fisherman jumps into the water, driving a big, tethered hook deep into the animal´s body. Then, the Whale Shark is stabbed with spears until it is so weak that the fishermen can begin to attach the animal to the underside of the boat without it struggling. A knife is then driven into the spinal cord to paralyze the animal, but not kill it, otherwise the heavy animal would sink. Next, the fishermen saw sink-sized holes through the animal´s jaws, to run ropes through, in order to lash it to the underside of the boat. When the boat reaches port or the shore, the Whale Shark is finally killed, cut into pieces, and sold.

Images of a Whale Shark hunt and slaughter in the Philippines.

The ultimate fate of the Whale Shark: stir-fried tofusa.

What do we do?
What shall we do?

Given a choice between the dinner table and an aquarium, the choice for Ralph is obvious (at least for the short term). But what about the larger context? Is it ethical to imprison a handful of Whale Sharks in aquariums around the world (and shortening their lives) if it will mean raising public awareness, and thus, saving the species from extinction? Or are we just kidding ourselves?

Ling ponders:

You just can't feel for the fish til you've come up close and personal. Should this experience be made available to the common man in the street for a fee? Or only a privilege only divers or snorkellers are members of?

While you ruminate over that, watch this award-winning, joint Wildaid/Merciless production, "Goodwill Hunting" (9 min 40 sec); filmed and edited by LingtheMerciless. Music by Leonard Ng and Nightsound. Diver, Davy Koh, on a KISS rebreather. Load the entire clip, then watch it.


Anonymous Anonymous said...

so...thats brutal huh...ever heard of veal? i noe u heard of scary bloody, u noe u aint a vegan, so brutal u dun have pictures of the slicing do ya? hm?

April 25, 2008 7:48 AM  
Blogger -ben said...


Ever heard of a straw man fallacy?

You just got kicked out of elementary school for wannabe trolls?


April 25, 2008 12:05 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

your blog is well educating and as being a whale and shark lover, this really hit home to me. i personally don't eat meat cause of the extremes that animals go through. i enjoyed reading your blog and was wondering if i could put it on my myspace account? you can email me at

July 21, 2008 6:43 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

I can´t understand how people can kill such impressing huge, yet harmless giants :(. I´d rather see them dead than those beautiful beings. Those fish aught to be a religious symbol or something.

July 30, 2008 8:55 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

god dammit....i cant believe people would kill animals JUST COZ THEY WANT TO EAT IT WHEN THEY R NOT EVEN STARVING!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!'
D:< D:< D:<

November 11, 2008 7:42 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

This is horrible!!!!!
When I'm only a teenager now and these are my favorite animals ever! I hope they'll still be alive when I grow up, I'm already studying to become a marine scientist so i can help these beautiful creatures some day.

November 30, 2008 3:55 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Not saying certain species aren't over fished to the point of extinction, but in 3rd world nations hunger is much more prevalent. How many people can one whale shark feed, and if you take that source of food away, what do you replace it with. I am not in favor of killing any species off, but is it worth the starvation of 1 human life?
How many hungry poor people did you see in the video voting to protect a fish? Just a thought?

January 24, 2009 7:17 PM  
Anonymous KATZ said...

Well I live in Hong Kong and never heard of people eating whale shark meat...but Hong Kong people do eat shark fins but definitely not whale shark's.

January 29, 2009 11:09 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

amazing i never knew that in tell know. Thanks.

April 03, 2009 7:20 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

why they kill this poor animal it's almost extinction!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!

November 23, 2009 2:18 AM  

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