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Whale Shark Distribution and Movements

Whale sharks are found in all tropical and subtropical waters except the Mediterranean Sea. They have been sighted primarily between latitudes 30° N and 35° S (Compagno 2001). Whale sharks are opportunistic filter feeders that reportedly aggregate in areas of high localized productivity. (See Feeding Ecology)

Whale sharks are considered to be highly migratory. Some moved over 8,000 miles in approximately three years (Eckert and Stewart 2001). In the Caribbean, specimens tagged off Belize moved westward to Honduras and others northward to the Yucatan peninsula (personal communication, R. Graham Wildlife Conservation Society). There are reports of a few sharks that have moved from Meso-American waters (e.g., Belize, Honduras) into the southern Gulf of Mexico (personal communication R. Graham, Wildlife Conservation Society). Two immature male whale sharks tagged off Holbox, Mexico, moved in different directions. One moved south to Honduras and the other moved north to Brownsville, Texas, (personal communication R. Hueter, Mote Marine Laboratory). There is no information on movements of whale sharks from the Caribbean Sea to the northern Gulf of Mexico.

The migratory behavior of whale sharks in the Gulf is unknown, and information on their occurrence in the northern Gulf is sparse. Available information is largely anecdotal and based on sightings reported by offshore recreational anglers divers, and petroleum industry personnel observing from vessels, aircraft and platforms. More than 100 whale sharks were sighted over a 10-year period during marine mammal aerial surveys conducted over continental shelf waters from Tampa, Fla., to Brownsville, Texas (Burks et al. 2006). Hoffmayer et al. (2005) reported on more than 30 different sightings of whale sharks in the northern Gulf from 2002 to 2004, with four being sightings of large aggregations (>30 individuals). Available information suggests that whale sharks occur most frequently in the northern Gulf during warmer months of the year (May-November). They may, however, occur in the region year around. (See Research). The question of whether whale sharks are a shared, migratory stock between the Gulf and the Caribbean Sea is unanswered, but the availability of new technological advances (e.g., satellite archival tags and online sighting databases) will allow scientists to address these questions in the future.

Literature Cited

Burks, C.M., W. B. Driggers III, and K.D. Mullin. 2006. Observations of whale sharks, Rhincodon typus, in the northern Gulf of Mexico. Fishery Bulletin 104: 579-584.

Compagno, L.J.V. 2001. Sharks of the world: an annotated and illustrated catalogue of shark species known to date. Volume 2: Heterodontiformes, Lamniformes, Orectolobiformes. FAO Species Catalogue for Fishery Purposes No. 1, Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations, Rome, Italy 269 p.

Eckert, S.A. and B.S. Stewart. 2001. Telemetry and satellite tracking of a whale shark, Rhincodon typus, in the Sea of Cortez, Mexico and the north Pacific Ocean. Environmental Biology of Fishes 60:299-308.

Hoffmayer, E.R., J.S. Franks, and J.P. Shelley. 2005. Recent observations of the whale shark (Rhincodon typus) in the north central Gulf of Mexico. Gulf and Caribbean Research 17:117-120.