Cheeky whale shark gets a free feed

By Tiffany Hoy 29 November 2013
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Rare footage of a whale shark feeding from a fishing net show just how clever the species is.

A STUNNING VIDEO OF a whale shark sneaking a free feed by sucking the fish out of a net has gone viral, with more than 1.3 million hits on YouTube and counting.

The spectacular footage of an adolescent male whale shark gulping down the day’s catch of silverside baitfish was captured by scientists from Conservation International, during an expedition to tag and track the gentle giants in Cendrawasih Bay National Marine Park in Indonesia.

Here the whale sharks have learned to hang out at ‘bagan’ fishing platforms, which use lanterns to lure baitfish into hanging nets, for an easy meal, says Mark Erdmann, a marine biologist with Conservation International, who was on the expedition. “Some of the sharks have become perhaps a bit too friendly and confident with the bagans, such that we are now seeing behaviours we had not previously documented,” he says.

Taking advantage of the trapped fish is a clever way to satisfy their enormous appetite, as whale sharks can grow to nearly 16m and need to consume tons of plankton and small fish a day to support their massive bodies. However, the behaviour isn’t common, as the fishers usually lift their nets clear of the water once the sun rises.

Whale shark feeding behaviour uncommon

“This is not a common occurrence, and generally will only happen when the fishers’ catch is so plentiful that they can’t store all the fish on board and so leave the nets down with the spillover fish inside, tempting the whale shark to poach their catch,” says Mark.

Chowing down on stolen fish from the nets can get the sharks in trouble, as the overly greedy ones can become entangled and trapped. The Cendrawasih Bay National Park Authority is currently working with local fishers to redesign the nets.

The endangered species, which are protected in Australian waters, are not thought to be at risk from retaliation by angry fishers, who view them as good luck. “I think if anything they’d probably just be amused at the resourcefulness of the whale sharks to feed on this excess catch,” says Mark.

“I’m delighted that this video has captured the public’s attention, especially if it means that even a fraction of these viewers are now more intrigued by our oceans and may be more inclined to act on their behalf,” he added.

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