National Geographic : 2011 Oct
The biggest sh in the sea is as long as a school bus, weighs as much as 50,000 pounds, and has a mouth that looks, head-on, wide enough to suck down a small car. Despite this distinctive pro le, scientists know very little about Rhinc- odon typus---the whale shark. e behemoths are indeed sharks: ey breathe through gills, like sh. ey are cold-blooded, like sh. e "whale" part of the name refers to size and how the animals eat. ey are one of only three known shark species that lter feed, as baleen whales do, swimming slowly through plankton-rich water, maws agape. Water goes in carrying edibles of all sizes, and water sans food ows out. e giant sh is hard to study in part because it is hard to nd and track. By tagging individual specimens, scientists have learned that whale sharks can log thousands of miles in years-long trips. But they sometimes disappear for weeks, diving more than a mile down and resting in the chilly deep for a spell. No one has ever found mating or birthing grounds. Whale sharks are ordinarily loners. But not in one corner of Indonesia. e photographs on these pages, shot some eight miles o the province of Papua, reveal a group of sharks that call on shermen each day, zipping by one another, looking for handouts near the surface, and nosing the nets---a rare instance when the generally docile sh act, well, like the rest of the sharks. ---Jennifer S. Holland PHOTOGRAPHS BY MICHAEL AW A whale shark tilts upright and yanks on a net, trying to make o with a sher- man's catch (le ). " is behavior shows they can be opportunistic feeders," says biologist Morgan Riley, a director of the Maldives Whale Shark Research Programme. Fishermen atop bagans ( oating platforms) o er bait sh (right), which may help keep the sharks away from the nets.