Last post, I wrote about Sir Richard Branson’s building a gazillion- £ deep sea diving vessel to explore what’s at the bottom of the Pacific’s Mariana Trench.
Eat your heart out if you can’t afford that. And no, I don’t have a thing about Sir Richard, just a touch of envy for his lifestyle.
Get to Cancun; Swim with Whale Sharks
Today’s post is about something Branson did that normal folks could do, provided we could afford air fare to the Yucatan: Go swimming with a bunch of whale sharks and then write about it, as he did on his blog.
Why would we want to do that? Because after 60 million years, sharks are endangered, thanks primarily to the Asian hunger for shark-fin soup.
Whales of all kinds are slaughtered for shark fin soup. Both their pectoral and dorsal fins are cut off before the animals are thrown back into the sea to sink to the bottom and die.
The Whale Shark, a spotted creature with an enormous mouth, is one of them.
The Biggest Fish in the Sea
A slow-moving filter feeder (they have baleen, not teeth), the whale shark is the biggest fish in the sea. The largest ever found was more than 40 feet long and weighed more than 79,000 lb, but unconfirmed claims report some considerably larger.
Whale sharks are found in tropical oceans and live about 70 years. With luck.
Now here’s the fun part.
Each year, from June to September, hundreds of them gather off Mexico’s Isla Mujeres and Isla Holbox , where the Gulf of Mexico joins the Caribbean Sea, to gobble up plankton.
In Spanish the phenomenon is called “afuera,” for “outside.”
When it happens, hundreds of people take swim-with-the-sharks boat trips , much like New Englanders go on whale watches off Boston and Provincetown.
Enter Richard Branson, who presumably took his own boat to swim with the fish.
Branson was in no danger. First, because whale sharks don’t eat people — although one diver who got too close to a whale shark’s enormous mouth nearly did get sucked into it — and second, as Joanna M. Foster notes in the NYT’s Green blog, because they’re in more danger from us than we are from them.
“Watch the Discovery Channel’s ‘Top 5 Eaten Alive’ and ‘Jaws Comes Home’, writes Foster, “and you see sharks stalking their prey to eerie soundtracks,” mouths open, teeth bared.
“[But] the fact is that sharks are responsible for the death of only two to three people each year. People kill nearly 73 million sharks annually, primarily for the fins used for shark-fin soup.”
In China, shark-fin soup is served on special occasions such as weddings and can cost $100 a bowl. The fins themselves have high levels of mercury but virtually no taste. When they’re slashed off a shark, the shark dies, as you would if your arms were cut off before you were tossed into the water.
Sharks grow slowly, reach sexual maturity relatively late, and give birth to just a few pups over a lifetime. Which is why there is no way to “harvest” them sustainably.
This is one science story that doesn’t need a lot of juicing. The facts are compelling enough.
How do you feel about sharks? Would you swim with them? Add a comment!