Georgia Aquarium protects whale sharks through research and conservation efforts in the field, in the laboratory and through our unique position as the only aquarium in the western hemisphere to display these elusive gentle giants.
Since 2004, the Aquarium’s field research focused on the many whale sharks that visit the Yucatan peninsula in Mexico, the largest gathering of its kind in the world. By using satellite tags, aerial surveys and photo identification software, Georgia Aquarium and its partners have studied and tracked over 1,000 whale sharks known to visit this area to feed on plankton and fish eggs every summer. The future focus for field research will be to explore connections to populations of whale sharks found in more remote places on Earth. There are still many unanswered questions about whale sharks, particularly about mating and reproduction. The answers to these questions may lie in deeper waters, far away from human observation.
Having whale sharks in an aquarium setting is a fantastic research opportunity. Aquarium veterinary staff and researchers continue to study the whale sharks in the Ocean Voyager exhibit, including their growth, behavior, health and genetics. Since 2008, Georgia State University has collaborated with Aquarium staff and volunteers to observe and record the individual sharks’ behavior. This data will help us understand and better care for sharks on exhibit, as well as improve our interpretation of behaviors seen in this field. Other recent advances have included a detailed exploration of the chemistry of their blood using cutting-edge analytical techniques at Georgia Institute of Technology and an exciting collaboration with Emory University to study the DNA of whale sharks based on tissue samples collected from animals at the Aquarium, which has led to the first ever complete shark genome map.