Whale sharks at Ga. Aquarium give researchers hope for rest of species

By REMI MERHI

ATLANTA — The Georgia Aquarium has always been known for rescuing animals and its  conservation efforts, but its latest developments and research as recent as May 2016 have the potential to save the whale shark species as a whole.

After acquiring four whale sharks in 2008, the staff continues to learn more about how to protect the species by researching patterns in the whale sharks’s behaviors that deal with their growth and health. They hope to eventually study baby whale sharks that will be able to maximize their conservation efforts.

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Whale shark at the Georgia Aquarium (Submitted photo)

“Since they’re in a closed environment, we have the opportunity to do a lot of research on them because not much is known about whale sharks, especially about breeding,” said Parker Ivey, an aquarium employee who works with life support systems.

If the whale sharks do breed, they would be the first ever documented baby whale sharks in the world. This documentation could be used to further conserve the species as a whole.

The four whale sharks the aquarium currently houses are still juveniles but have the possibility of reproducing when they mature.

The reason not much is known about whale sharks is that the Georgia Aquarium is only one of two aquariums in the entire world to have them. The aquarium rescued its whale sharks from a Thailand fishery that was trying to use the animals as food.

Instead, the aquarium gave them a different fate and placed the whale sharks in a 6.3-million-gallon enclosure, the biggest in the world, that was built to house six whale sharks.

Before rescuing them, the aquarium was only able to research the whale sharks in the wild through its research station in Mexico. Ivey said, although this is amazing, only so much research can be done in the wild.

If babies are born in the aquarium, it would open up new doors for researchers.

Although whale sharks have never been born in captivity, the employees try to ensure a live birth by trying to make them feel as much at home as possible.

Angel Foster, a life support operator technician, focuses on ensuring that the marine life interact with an environment that is closest to their natural home. She makes sure the temperature, water motion and filtration mimic that of the ocean.

The technicians also attempt to replicate the diets, currents needed for migration and the situations that allow the animals to use all their senses.

“We always strive to make sure that all of our mammals use all of their senses that they would normally use in the wild,” Foster said. “We also use training techniques to make sure they are using it in fun and creative ways to keep their mind sharp and make sure they don’t get — I guess ‘bored’ is the word.”

The aquarium also allows certified divers to dive in the enclosure with the whale sharks. The aquarium continues to improve its conservation efforts by teaching the divers more about these gentle giants as the research develops.

Much like a regular dive in the ocean, the divers are instructed not to disturb the whale sharks or parts of their environment. In fact, most of the divers remain close to the surface and simply observe the animals from a distance.

This is just another activity that the aquarium uses to conserve the environment. Aquarium researchers also release sea turtles, conduct research in the wild and practice coral conservation, Ivey said.

“They really do a lot to educate and inform people about the environment and how they can sustain it,” Ivey said. “There’s something unique there, and they actually do care.”

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