As a filter feeder it has a capacious mouth which can be up to 1.5 metres (4.9 ft) wide and can contain between 300 and 350 rows of tiny teeth. It has five large pairs of gills. Two small eyes are located towards the front of the shark's wide, flat head. The body is mostly grey with a white belly; three prominent ridges run along each side of the animal and the skin is marked with a "checkerboard" of pale yellow spots and stripes. These spots are unique to each individual and are useful for counting populations. Its skin can be up to 10 centimetres (3.9 in) thick. The shark has a pair each of dorsal fins and pectoral fins. Juveniles' tails have a larger upper than lower fin while the adult tail becomes semi-lunate (crescent-shaped). Spiracles are just behind the eyes.
The whale shark is not an efficient swimmer since it uses its entire body, unusually for fish and contributes to an average speed of only around 5-kilometre-per-hour (3.1 mph). The largest specimen was caught on November 11, 1947, near the island of Baba, not far from Karachi, Pakistan. It was 12.65 metres (41.50 ft) long, weighed more than 21.5 tonnes (47,000 lb), and had a girth of 7 metres (23.0 ft). Stories of vastly larger specimens (quoted lengths of 18 metres (59 ft) are not uncommon in the popular shark literature) but no scientific records support their existence. In 1868 the Irish natural scientist Edward Perceval Wright obtained several small whale shark specimens in the Seychelles, but claimed to have observed specimens in excess of 15 metres (49.2 ft), and tells of reports of specimens surpassing 21 metres (68.9 ft).
In a 1925 publication, Hugh M. Smith described a huge animal caught in a bamboo fish trap in Thailand in 1919. The shark was too heavy to pull ashore, but Smith estimated that the shark was at least 17 metres (56 ft) long, and weighed approximately 37 tonnes (82,000 lb), which have been exaggerated to a more precise measurement of 17.98 metres (58.99 ft) and weight 43 tonnes (95,000 lb) in recent years. A shark caught in 1994 near Tainan County in Southern Taiwan reportedly weighed 35.8 tonnes (79,000 lb). There have even been claims of whale sharks of up to 23 metres (75 ft). In 1934 a ship named the Maurguani came across a whale shark in the Southern Pacific Ocean, rammed it, and the shark consequently became stuck on the prow of the ship, supposedly with 4.6 metres (15.1 ft) on one side and 12.2 metres (40.0 ft) on the other. No reliable documentation exists for these claims and they remain "fish-stories".
10/24/2012: Whale Shark Migration more >>
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07/05/2011: 54 souls, mostly new faces, braved the storm last night to pack the Utila Lodge Bar for Jon's weekly whale shark presentation. Thanks to everyone, especially Shawn and Kate Boyer from Miami who adopted a whale shark, for coming out... more >>Join mailing list >>