For the very first time, a pilot has captured images of two whale sharks attempting to mate.
The shots were taken on Monday, June 10 by Tiffany Klein, pilot and owner of Ningaloo Aviation, over the waters of Ningaloo Coast in Western Australia. The two colossal creatures were spotted swimming together, swirling around, before the male flipped upward and briefly made physical contact. The pair then parted ways and returned to deeper waters.
“I was very surprised, I have been working with whale sharks for nine years and have not seen anything like that before,” Klein told IFLScience.
The male was an estimated 9 meters (29 feet) in length, while the female was notably shorter. Unfortunately, her small size suggests she might be a juvenile, so it’s unlikely this attempt to mate was successful – in all likelihood, the male was rejected. Nevertheless, that shouldn’t take away from how encouraging it is to observe and capture this behavior for the first time.
The size of this male is fairly typical of the species, although they have been known to grow up to 18.8 meters (61 feet). This makes them the largest known fish species currently on our planet. They can be found across all tropical and temperate seas, from Western Australia to the Gulf of Mexico, and generally hang out in sunlit pelagic waters. Despite this, we know remarkably little about them, especially their breeding behaviors, which makes this footage so exciting for scientists.
“Very little is known about where whale sharks mate or give birth,” Klein added. “They are solitary animals and are seen swimming by themselves.”
They are also listed as an endangered species on the IUCN Red List. They are mainly threatened by fishing and other industrial activities. For example, a huge number of whale sharks are caught by commercial fisheries in Asia-Pacific waters and the Indian Ocean. Although Whale Sharks are not necessarily targeted, they are often caught as bycatch. This problem is especially prevalent because fishing vessels often use whale sharks as an indication that tuna are nearby.
Scientists were especially concerned in the wake of the BP/Deepwater Horizon oil spill in 2010, as the Gulf of Mexico is a hotspot for whale sharks. It’s unclear how badly they were affected by this catastrophe as no dead whale sharks were found, although most experts believe the oil must have forced many individuals to become displaced and disturbed.
But as this new footage shows, there could still be hope. Richard Pillans, a CSIRO research scientist, told ABC News that the sighting suggests whale sharks are potentially breeding in Ningaloo. This, he hopes, could open up further research into this mysterious species in the area.