March 9, 2009—A local whale shark "interaction officer" cradles what is likely the smallest known wild example of the world's biggest fish on Saturday in San Antonio, Philippines (map). (See video below for baby-adult size comparison.)
The discovery of the baby whale shark could help protect these rare giants by shedding light on where whale sharks are born.
Early on March 7 a project leader from the international conservation organization WWF and others in the town of Donsol heard that a live whale shark was being offered for sale at a nearby beach. Expecting a stranded giant, the rescuers found instead a 15-inch (38-centimeter) shark leashed to a stake in the mud like a neglected puppy.
By the end of the day, after photos and measurements had been taken, the young whale shark was free again, released into deeper waters.
Harmless to humans, whale sharks feed mainly on plankton and can grow to at least 40 feet (12 meters) long. They are listed as vulnerable by the International Union for Conservation of Nature, meaning they "face a high risk of extinction in the medium-term future."
One key to safeguarding the species is finding their birthing grounds, which remain a mystery, said marine conservationist Brad Norman, a National Geographic Society emerging explorer, who had trained local WWF volunteers and staff in cataloging whale sharks. (The National Geographic Society owns National Geographic News.)
"The find is very exciting," Norman said in an email, as it suggests the Donsol area may be such a place.
And because the shark's photos and profile are now in Norman's ECOCEAN Whale Shark Photo-Identification Library, he looks forward future to sightings and study of the newly named P-219 for as long as it may live—perhaps another 60 or 100 years.
Related Video: Adult Whale Sharks