Georgia Aquarium Paves the Way in Understanding Whale Sharks

A Piece of Ocean in a Landlocked City

The Georgia Aquarium, the largest aquarium of its kind in the world, opened its doors in late 2005 as a gift to the people of Atlanta from the co-founder of Home Depot, Bernard “Bernie” Marcus. Determined to bring the ocean 300 miles inland to the metropolis capital of this southern state in which his company originated, Marcus donated 250 million dollars to the venture, declaring that this facility would educate visitors of all ages about the animal world, promoting “stewardship in conservation”.

Quickly becoming one of Atlanta’s most popular attractions, the Georgia Aquarium is the only facility in the western hemisphere to house whale sharks. The largest fish in the ocean, whale sharks can grow to be over thirty feet long and weigh roughly twenty tons, and the Georgia Aquarium’s Ocean Voyager exhibit boasts four of these animals.

Dinner Is Served

While imposing in size, this animal is a filter feeder, meaning that it scoops small fish and plankton, but not much else is on the menu. In fact, though these animals’ mouths can be up to four feet wide, the size and shape of their esophagus inhibits them from swallowing anything larger than a quarter.

Open Wide!

Open Wide!

These feeding restrictions and habits have forced the aquarists at the aquarium to implement some rather unique techniques when lunchtime rolls around. The sharks’ caretakers cannot simply toss buckets of food into the water and cross their fingers that each individual gets its share. Every ounce of food for each animal is calculated every day and is prepared with the same accuracy in cleanliness that your food is in a restaurant. The USDA even evaluates and inspects the kitchen, which, in the zoological world, is called a commissary.

The sharks also lack the ability to sit in front of the aquarists with its head tilted upwards waiting for an afternoon snack. Whale sharks must constantly be on the move as it is this movement that forces water into their mouths and over their gills, giving them the ability to breathe.

Being that the sharks cannot be stationary, at feeding time, the aquarists climb into inflatable boats and use what could be described as shark-sized spoons to deliver a mixture of krill, shrimp, and nutrient-rich gel to each shark as it swims alongside. The hardworking aquarists use a cable or line system to pull themselves, the food mixture, the very large utensil, and, of course, the boat across the exhibit (which is about as long as a football field). Alice, Trixie, Yushan, and Taroko, the four whale sharks at the aquarium have been trained to follow their own boats, each only being fed from a specific “lane”. This activity occurs several times a day and, in total, the whale sharks are offered nearly twenty thousand pounds of food each year!

View from above the Ocean Voyager exhibit.  Look closely to see the feeding boats and cables.

View from above the Ocean Voyager exhibit.
Look closely to see the feeding boats and cables.

Researching Further

Not only does each shark get a specific diet, tailored just for them, but for each animal in its care, the Georgia Aquarium develops a healthcare plan to ensure their residents’ wellbeing. For the whale sharks, that means a variety of data collections, including behavior analysis, body measurements, and blood draws.

Because the Georgia Aquarium is in the unique position of being one of the only aquariums to care for and study these animals (the only one outside of Asia), it has the opportunity to research and discover many “firsts” that help us learn more about the specifics of this species.

For example, it was the first in the world to study and assess the biochemistry of whale sharks. By comparing the serums of healthy animals to those of unhealthy animals, researchers from the Georgia Aquarium were able to determine that certain markers in a whale shark’s blood could indicate its general health. Implementing a science known as metabolomics, which involves identifying substances necessary for metabolism, and using advanced technology such as a mass spectrometer, the researchers discovered that the metabolite homarine, as well as twenty-five more compounds, was a meaningful indicator in evaluating the health of a whale shark.

Now, that’s a lot of aquarist/biologist/shark-expert jargon (and, if you understood, feel free to read more about it here), but basically, what that means is that, not only does this information assist those who work with these animals every day, but it also has the ability to aid the scientific community in the field as they continue the attempt to conserve this species.

Listed as vulnerable on the IUCN’s red list, whale sharks are still hunted in some parts of the world. The Georgia Aquarium acquired its four sharks from Taiwan, a country that, at one time, killed sixty whale sharks in one year, but has now reduced that figure to zero. The government of Taiwan has since partnered with the Georgia Aquarium in hopes of leading as an example for other countries to follow suit in whale shark conservation.

A whale shark cruises near the surface of the water.

A whale shark cruises near the surface of the water.

Conducting research on whale sharks in the wild is no easy task. The whale shark population continues to trend downward and scientists still know very little about their ecology, including growth rates, longevity, and migration patterns. The Georgia Aquarium is not only doing research on property, where the Ocean Voyager exhibit provides the opportunity to observe these animals as researchers learn about their growth rates, age at maturity, and behavioral tendencies, but also in the field, as they have become official partners with Project Domino, an organization that uses satellite tags to track individual sharks. Early studies have shown that one individual traveled over eight thousand miles, a journey that took more than three years to complete.

Let’s Do Our Part!

If you are interested in the Georgia Aquarium and their research projects revolving around whale sharks, there are a couple ways you can help. The Georgia Aquarium, which is a 501c3 nonprofit organization, relies on the public’s support through donations and attendance. So, one way to help is to go and witness these animals up close. You can even learn about these animals from a diver while he/she is inside the exhibit!

A diver utilizes a specially designed mask to communicate with the audience from inside the Ocean Voyager exhibit as a whale shark swims overhead.

A diver utilizes a specially designed mask to communicate
with the audience from inside the Ocean Voyager exhibit as a whale
shark swims overhead.

But, there are even more immersive ways to learn! If standing outside the habitat still feels too far away, you can get even closer by snorkeling or scuba diving inside the exhibit.

Thank you for being interested in whale shark research, of which so much could not have been conducted without the help and expertise of the Georgia Aquarium.

And, of course, thank you for visiting Zoos Are Important!

Learning Links:

Georgia Aquarium’s Whale Shark Research

Whale Shark Guide

Georgia Aquarium’s Research Team Studying in Mexico

 

As Guests Watch Whales, The New England Aquarium Catalogs

What’s In a Name

The New England Aquarium, nestled up against the Boston harbor, provides visitors with a unique opportunity to see the facility’s resident creatures like fur seals (including some that were rescued!), bonnethead sharks, and little blue penguins, and, with a separate ticket, some rather large animals that call the waters off Massachusetts home for just a few months each year.

Guests who step aboard one of the whale watching catamarans named Cetacea, Aurora, or Asteria, take a trip to the Stellwagen Bank Marine Sanctuary where marine mammals abound. Finback whales, minke whales, and humpback whales are commonly sighted, and, while they are not considered the “main attraction”, it is also possible to see Atlantic white-sided dolphins, pilot whales, or harbor seals.

As you snap pictures in awe, the aquarium’s research team is on the third deck, pointing out where to look for the animals next and explaining the behavioral tendencies of that particular species to the spectators via a microphone. They also take the opportunity to record the behaviors the animals demonstrate on that particular day, like lunge feeding, tail lobbing, or breaching, as well as which individual animals are sighted.

Like a human’s fingerprint, or a zebra’s stripes, every whale has an identifying feature. For example, each humpback whale has a unique pattern on its fluke, or tail. Scientists around the world use these patterns to track the animals as their migration routes can cover thousands of miles. The same individuals that the New England Aquarium team logs in the summer may be sighted all the way down in the Caribbean Sea, where the females give birth during the winter.

Pleats' Flukes

Pleats’ Flukes

Milkweed's Flukes

Milkweed’s Flukes

Wizard's Flukes

Wizard’s Flukes

Each animal is labelled in the catalog with a number, but the researchers tend to call them by name. Among others, individual whales named Pleats, Milkweed, Echo, and Wizard made appearances on the day that we boarded. We also had the opportunity to see the months old calves that belong to the latter three.

Those calves are documented, just as their mothers are, and will eventually earn names too. According to the researchers introducing these animals to us that day, there are a variety of ways that a whale earns its name. Often times, it is because of a marking along its body. Echo, for example, has several lines on her fluke that look like illustrated sonar pings ‘echoing’ off of an object.

Every so often, the whale is named after a person. Right whale 1158 is referred to as ‘Bud’ in honor of the New England Aquarium’s CEO after nearly a decade’s worth of service in the position.

Benefits of Cataloging

Just as humpback whales do, right whales also migrate. One of the rarest species of marine mammal, with only about five hundred individuals left in the world, right whales have been the subject of extensive research conducted by the New England Aquarium. Rather than identify them by their flukes, naturalists look at the white patches that form on their heads. These ‘callosities’ (pronounced kah-laus’-uh-tees) give the appearance of being white because of parasites which highlight patches of the animal around their face, lips, and eyes. Each pattern is different, and, in general, stays relatively the same throughout the animal’s lifetime.

Scientists track the individuals from Maine down the east coast to Florida. Tracking their migration path could prove instrumental in preserving the species. Almost fifty percent of known right whale deaths are human related, the most prevalent being vessel strikes and fishing gear entanglement. By mapping where the whales go and the route they take to get there, the New England Aquarium works with the shipping industry to prevent fatal strikes to these animals.

The scarring on Pleats' back is from an encounter with a boat’s propeller.

The scarring on Pleats’ back is from an encounter with a boat’s propeller.

Given their research about the migratory and assembly patterns of right whales, the Aquarium has been able to make suggestions in the past as to the benefits of relocating shipping lanes that dissected important feeding grounds for these animals.

Based on information collected by research teams, like that connected to the New England Aquarium, scientists predicted that without restrictions to ocean-going vessels, the right whale species may never be able to recover from its low numbers. In 2008, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) implemented a temporary rule which imposed a speed limit on ships traveling within certain areas that coincided with the range of right whales along the east coast.

Initial estimations indicated that ship strikes to right whales by eighty to ninety percent. As time went on, the speed limit seemed to be effective, as evidenced by the fact that, since the rule went into place, there had been no right whale deaths caused by ship strikes in these designated locations.

This past December, NOAA issued a statement declaring that the rule protecting right whales from lethal ship strikes was no longer ‘temporary’. The New England Aquarium’s research team celebrated this victory, with research assistant Marianna H. writing, the “removal of these speed restrictions would have been taking several steps backwards. Fortunately, the rule now exists in perpetuity!!”

Continuing Conservation

(Above is a video of the New England Aquarium’s Research Team sampling right whales’ exhales. Please note that this is not a part of a whale watching tour and that, without specific permits, it is illegal to be this close to these animals.)

The New England Aquarium’s involvement with whales, right whales in particular, is their longest running conservation program. Whether their method of transportation is of the sky or sea, they continue to photograph and log identifying details as well as track these animals as they make their annual journey along the eastern coast of the United States.

You have a chance to assist them by sponsoring a right whale and supporting legislation that looks to protect whales’ futures. You can also try your hand as a research assistant by playing this ‘matching game’ on the New England Aquarium’s website.

Remember too that if you are out boating where any marine life may be present, you are sharing those waters. Keep a slow speed, an eye on the surface for any activity, and remember that the animal has the right of way.

Check out the most recent right whale news by reading the New England Aquarium’s right whale blog written by research assistants and full of pictures of these amazing animals. If you are curious about the whales that are sighted and what behaviors whale watchers are seeing, check out the New England Aquarium’s whale watching blog. And, if you are interested in taking a trip on one of the Aquarium’s catamarans and viewing these whales, visit their website for details.

Don’t forget to share your experiences and pictures with us on our Facebook page, that’s where we posted ours!

Thank you for visiting Zoos Are Important!

Learning Links:

New England Aquarium’s Right Whale Conservation

North Atlantic Right Whale Consortium

NOAA’s Humpback Whale Bio

NOAA’s Right Whale Bio