Thanks to the work of wildlife officials in India, a baby whale shark that found itself entangled in a gillnet is swimming free. These spotted neonates are rarely seen, which makes the successful rescue all the more exciting.
The pup was discovered back in February near the fishing village of Sutrapada on the country's west coast by the team at Wildlife Trust of India (WTI). Along with the Gujarat Forest Department, the crew has been monitoring whale shark populations in the area.
"Very little scientific knowledge is available on whale sharks in India," the team explains. "The recorded presence of neonatal whale sharks in the Gujarat coastal waters is significant, in that it supports the proposition that the Arabian Sea may be a breeding territory for whale sharks."
Only about 30 whale shark pups under a metre long have ever been documented, and it takes as many years for a female to reach sexual maturity. That's why every sighting represents a vital pin on the mostly empty map of nursery habitat we have for the species – and filling up that map is a critical step towards protecting these endangered sharks better. Along with collisions with vessels, accidental entanglement in fishing gear is a major threat to these animals.
Incredibly, this is the fifth pup documented during the India survey.
"Juveniles are about as rare as hens' teeth, this is really extraordinary footage!" says marine biologist Dr Alistair Dove, who has done extensive work on the species. Dove is the VP of Research and Conservation at Georgia Aquarium, a non-profit aquarium that houses four whale sharks.
The WTI team attributes much of their success to collaboration with Gujarati fishermen, many of whom willingly cut their nets to save entangled whale sharks. In a bid to motivate conservation-minded fishing in the region, the Forest Department has implemented a reimbursement programme to ensure fishermen do not have to bear the costs of lost nets or catch.
"[We have] also provided around 300 cameras to fishermen, who document the release of the large fish and get compensated by the department when they present the pictures," they say. "This has been helping with the identification of the whale sharks."
Meanwhile, pups have been making appearances elsewhere in the world, too. This little guy was filmed while cruising past a boat at Huvadhoo Atoll in the Maldives:
And last week, a two-metre youngster was seen some 250 miles north of Huvadhoo.
"Captain Joe Shoemaker spotted this beauty and was able to pull in all the lines and drift along with it," the team wrote on their charter blog. "This is only the second time in our history that we were able to witness this wonder. At one point the baby actually kissed the bow of the boat. We are constantly amazed at the wonders of the mighty Pacific Ocean!"
So, is this some kind of whale shark "baby boom"? Not so fast. As with the rise in reports of oddball white whales, it's likely that the sightings spike comes down to the fact that we simply have more eyes on the water than ever before.
If you're lucky enough to encounter a pup, you can report the sighting and submit photos at whaleshark.org. Even at this young age, the spots on a whale shark's back are unique – much like our fingerprints – and can be used to differentiate one individual from the next.
Top header image: Klaus Stiefel/Flickr