18 April 2013

Whale sharks are even more awesome than I thought

Al Dove spent Tuesday at UTPA as part of the Office of Graduate Studies STEM lecture series. Al is a longtime friend of this blog, and I knew about of his whale shark work. But before the day was out, my vision of whale sharks had been transformed.

I used to think of them as slow moving, placid, sort of dumb beasts. Before the day was half over, my view was more like this.

Whale sharks are scary armoured stalkers.

Whale sharks stalk smaller fish around the ocean, waiting for them to have sex so they can eat all their children. (That is, fish eggs. This is why they aggregate in huge numbers off the coast of Mexico; de la Parra Venegas et al. 2011).

If you bother them, they’ll swat you with their tail, like a horse swatting away a fly with its tail. Only a tap from a whale shark tail is like getting hit with a ping pong table covered in sandpaper.

They have four inches of skin with the grit of sandpaper on their back, the thickest in the animal kingdom. Their skin is so thick that titanium barbs fired at point blank can’t pierce it reliably. Nothing is able to take a bite out of them, not even cookie cutter sharks.

They may look like they are slow swimmers because of their size, but whale sharks swim faster than any diver can keep up with.

Al did a tour of some of the biology labs and met with students in the morning and over lunch. In the afternoon, he met with a few classes where the focus shifted from science to science communication.

Al talked to several classes about his experience in outreach. He was inspired to take his science to the streets, as it were, after seeing Randy Olson’s Flock of Dodos: The Evolution-Intelligent Design Circus (available for viewing instantly on Netflix). This led to his involvement with Deep Sea News, and his various Twitter accounts. In addition to his own account, he impersonates a whale shark on Twitter, Domino, and shared his plans for a new account, Whale Shark Watch.

Whale Shark Watch is not ready for prime time yet. The avatar is still just an egg, and there are only a few experimental tweets, and I was follower number 5. The plan is that the account will post location data from tagged whale sharks in near real time. This will give anyone the opportunity to follow along. I can see this being particularly great for students at almost all levels.

The evening came for Al’s keynote address. The room was lively, with about 350 people there, and many of them were K-12 students.

One of the nice things about Al’s talk was that he took to heart that it was a STEM talk, not just biology. He talked about the creation of the Georgia Aquarium, the newest and biggest aquarium in the world, and all the technology and engineering that goes into creating a tank big enough to hold whale sharks. Indeed, some of the technology to make the acrylic viewing panels is still a trade secret.

It’s all the more impressive when you consider that Atlanta is not a city on the coast. They don’t have a ready supply of seawater. Everything is artificial and engineered.

I was also gobsmacked by the amount of science effort that goes into transporting and maintaining the whale sharks. There’s a three month acclimation process before the shark even gets close to a plane to move to Atlanta.

And once they’re on site, maintaining them is another challenge. They taught them to follow a boat. Each boat had a different coloured bucket, and the sharks have learned which colour bucket has their meal and not the other sharks.

I think almost everyone left the talk wanting to visit the aquarium.

Of course, Al also talked about his field work. One of his themes for the day was that even though whale sharks are the biggest fish in the world, we know almost nothing about the very basic biology. How long do they live? Don’t know. How do they reproduce? Don’t know; they’ve never been seen mating or giving birth.

He ended his talk with this picture.

He called it, “two kids having their mind blown.” He said this was the point at which all the technology melted away, and was completely invisible to these kids. All they were doing was simply reacting to the awe of being able to see this amazing animal. This, he said, was a moment where they were open and receptive and you had the opportunity to connect and educate people.

Afterwards, there was a long question and answer session, with a lot of excellent questions. He had lots of people wanting to take picture with him. Because he is a rock star.

Al Dove blew 350 minds at UTPA this week. Including mine.

Related posts

Calling South Texans!
Abandonment issues
The small brain of the biggest shark in the world
SICB Day 2
Passion for evolution

External links

Deep Sea News
Georgia Aquarium
Swimming with whale sharks


de la Parra Venegas R, Hueter R, González Cano J, Tyminski J, Gregorio Remolina J, Maslanka M, Ormos A, Weigt L, Carlson B, Dove A. 2011. An unprecedented aggregation of whale sharks, Rhincodon typus, in Mexican coastal waters of the Caribbean Sea. PLOS ONE 6(4): e18994. doi: 10.1371/journal.pone.0018994

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