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Swimming with the whale sharks?

Key facts that you should know

They can grow to as big as a school bus and seeing them up close can be intimidating but there is a reason why they are called the gentle giants of the oceans.

And NO, they are not going to eat you.

As a marine biologist and technical and scientific diver, Ahmed N Al Lawati has first-hand information and experience about whale sharks.

He has a bachelor’s degree in marine biology from Hawaii Pacific University where he “learned and got hands-on experience with various marine life ranging from microscopic planktons to larger megafauna such as sharks, whales, and dolphins.” His credential also boasts being a research assistant for the Whaleshark and Oceanic Research Center in Utila, Honduras where “along with collecting various data such as leading coral and fish identification dives, I was also collecting crucial data about whale sharks whenever the opportunity presented itself.”

Also holding a master’s degree in aquaculture science and technology from James Cook University in Australia and currently working as a marine environmental consultant at Five Oceans Environmental Services here in Oman, Ahmed is one of the prolific personalities who champion marine life.

“As a marine biologist, I am passionate about the ocean as a whole with a big emphasis on protecting coral reefs which serve as crucial habitats for numerous marine life as well as for us as humans. I am also passionate about tackling the challenges that our current oceans are facing, such as overfishing, pollution (waste, ex: plastic wastes, ghost fishing), global warming, and establishment proper eco-touristic approach to the marine life in Oman (such as establishing proper eco-tours for snorkelling with whale sharks), among others,” he shared.

Ahmed shares some very important recommendations of why, more than just an attraction, we should be more aware of whale sharks and the role they play in the environment.

When is the whale shark season in Oman and why is it that they are seasonally making a stop in the Sultanate?

The whale shark season in Oman occurs during the warmer months of the year that usually ranges from July to October, with the peak between late August to early October. However, this can vary from year to year depending on various factors such as temperature and nutrient availability.

Whale sharks (classified as Endangered on the IUCN Red list) are filter feeders, meaning that they feed on planktonic and nektonic organisms. They tend to aggregate seasonally in what is known as “Hot spots” in response to regular or seasonal (in the case of Oman) driven planktonic food sources.

In Oman, we are fortunate to have upwelling events that bring nutrient-rich deep water to the surface, creating the perfect conditions for planktons and zooplanktons to thrive and form feeding hot spots for filter feeders such as whale sharks. The seasonality of whale sharks in Oman also depends on their migratory routes, however, this is an area of study as little is known about the pelagic “lifestyle” of whale sharks. Though, some studies have shown that due to the geographic position of Oman, it is a popular hot spot for whale sharks that are making their way to the Al Shaheen region in Qatar (where one of the world’s largest aggregations of whale sharks occur).

What makes whale sharks special? Why shouldn’t people be afraid of them?

They are known to be the gentle giants of the ocean. Whale sharks are the largest fish known that can reach a maximum length of about 18 meters and weighing more than 15 tons. They are known for the spots on their body that mimics a starry night and serve as camouflage to deter predators away.

The spots on each whale shark are different from another, thus they serve as an important identification feature like our fingerprints. This unique feature allows scientists to photo-identify each individual thus allowing them to gather important information such as population size and migration patterns.

People should not be afraid because they are extremely gentle and can’t bite or chew (they are filter feeders). They feed by processing large quantities of water (up to 6,000 litres an hour) through their gills. As long as people follow the whale shark watching guidelines set, the safety of both the individual and whale sharks can be maintained.

What are the best spots to

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