Educators from the Aquarium of the Pacific answer our questions about the Octonauts' adventure with a whale shark and teach us how to help protect whale sharks in real life.
MUSIC: [Octonauts theme music] Octonauts, to your stations! Barnacles! Kwazii! Peso!
HOST: You’re listening to "NOAA & the Octonauts" — an episode-by-episode discussion of the children’s TV show The Octonauts, which features a crew of quirky and courageous undersea adventurers. Their mission: to explore the world’s ocean, rescue the creatures who live there, and protect their habitats.
MUSIC: [Octonauts theme music] Explore! Rescue! Protect! Octonauts!
HOST: Our monthly podcast brings together experts from inside and outside of NOAA to help you — and the children you care about — learn more about the real-life versions of the Octonauts sea creatures and the ocean they call home.
This podcast is hosted by NOAA’s Office of Education and the Coastal Ecosystem Learning Center Network. Today, I’m your host, Lauren Gibson. I’m the Knauss Marine Policy Fellow for NOAA’s Office of Education.
Today, we’re talking about Episode 1: The Octonauts and the Whale Shark. When Dashi, Captain Barnacles, and Kwazii get trapped inside the mouth of a whale shark, the Octonauts learn that they are too big to escape through the filter feeder’s gills. Thankfully, Peso saves the day by tickling the shark’s gills, opening up its giant mouth and allowing the team to swim to safety.
MUSIC: [Peso’s theme]
HOST: Now, before we begin our chat, let’s set the stage for today’s deep dive:
Whale sharks are the biggest fish in the sea — they can be as long as a school bus and weigh as much as 50,000 pounds. That’s the same as four elephants! You can recognize whale sharks by their broad, flat head; their short snouts; and their distinctive white, yellow, and grey checkerboard skin. But despite their intimidating appearance, whale sharks are really gentle giants. They eat mostly eat small marine critters. They catch these meals of plankton, schooling fish, and squid by acting like massive swimming vacuum cleaners. The whale sharks will suck water in through their three-foot-long mouths, and then they use a special part of this mouth to filter out the tasty seafood. The remaining seawater releases back into the ocean through the shark’s gills. Whale sharks can live to be around 100 years old. They spend their time in the warm seas of the world. Many divers will make special trips to these waters hoping that they’ll be lucky enough to find one of these elusive creatures. And although you are far more likely to see many other species of sharks at aquariums, our guests from the Aquarium of the Pacific do know a bit about this special creature.
Our guests today are Erin McCombs and David Bader of the Aquarium of the Pacific. As education supervisor, Erin facilitates the aquarium’s shark citizen science research program, Global FinPrint. She also works on the aquarium’s public programs. And as director of education, David is in charge of the aquarium’s overall educational offerings. This includes programs, exhibit interpreters, and volunteers. Erin and David, thanks for joining us.
DAVID BADER: Thanks for having us.
ERIN MCCOMBS: We’re glad to be here.
HOST: Now, before we get any farther, I have a clarifying question for you: Is a whale shark a whale or a shark, and what’s the difference between the two?
ERIN MCCOMBS: That’s a great question. Whale sharks are a type of shark; in fact, they’re the biggest shark, which also makes them the biggest fish in the ocean. They have the name whale shark because they do have some similarities with whales. They’re really big, and like some types of whales, they also filter their food out of the water, but they are definitely a shark. They have gills, so they breathe water like a shark does, and they are not a mammal, like a whale.
HOST: So if whale sharks are the biggest sharks, were you worried when Dashi was stuck inside of one?
DAVID BADER: So there was a lot of drama in the episode for certain, but I don’t think Erin or I were worried about Dashi when she was trapped in the whale shark, for a lot of different reasons. One, we know and we trust in the Octonauts to be able to rescue their friends.
ERIN MCCOMBS: We knew someone would have a solution.
DAVID BADER: Absolutely, and also, if we thought about it from a biological perspective, in reality, we know that whale sharks focus on eating very small things in nature, and we’re pretty certain that Dashi is probably bigger than something a whale shark could really swallow.
ERIN MCCOMBS: Yeah, so the whale sharks eat tiny, tiny food. They might have a really big mouth, but they eat tiny food, and their throat is more the size of a golf ball, so I’m pretty sure that Dashi was safe.
DAVID BADER: Certainly, the whale shark itself was going to avoid having something as large as a Dashi or a person to even get in there in the first place.
HOST: That’s a relief. Yeah, when Captain Barnacles and Kwazii were looking for Dashi inside the whale shark, the Captain did explain that Dashi couldn’t fit through the shark’s gills. Can you explain a little bit more about whale shark gills and filter feeding?
ERIN MCCOMBS: Yeah, so what the whale sharks do is they swim through the water and they basically will filter out tiny plankton, things like fish and sometimes krill, fish eggs, very small animals, and they will filter that out while they are swimming through the water. They also have the ability to almost vacuum up the water, to vacuum up those plankton that are living inside the water.
DAVID BADER: So even though whale sharks have teeth, they don’t really use them for eating. They are in the front of their jaw; they’re really tiny. What they eat with instead, is they capture those tiny planktonic organisms, mostly small animals like Erin said (little fish, larval fish, maybe fish eggs, small little shrimp-like animals), and they capture those on what is called a gill raker, which is part of their gill but it’s sort of on the backside of their gills, and it’s used to sort out the food from the water, and then they can swallow that afterwards.
HOST: Great. So can you tell us a little bit more about plankton? What is it, and why is it important?
DAVID BADER: So plankton are drifting organisms. Basically, that’s what the term means; it means drifting with the current. So anything that drifts with the current that is living in the ocean is going to be determined or defined as plankton, so it can be everything from tiny little copepods or shrimps. It can be algaes like diatoms and dinoflagellates, things that people might have heard of, but it can also be things as big as sea jellies. So anything that drifts with the current is going to be called plankton.
What’s really interesting is that everybody has probably seen plankton before. When you gaze out onto a lake or a river or out into the ocean, when we grab our box of crayons to color in that area of the coloring sheet, we pick out the blue. But if we really think about it, most often those areas of water are green. That green color actually comes from plankton that is in the water. It’s so abundant often that it can stain or color that water green or sometimes even a reddish-brown.
HOST: And why is plankton so important for the ecosystem?
DAVID BADER: Well, plankton is the base of ocean ecosystems — and often the base of freshwater ecosystems as well. It’s kind of like the grass or the plants that are in the ocean environments instead of on land. So pretty much every ocean food web, aside from a few, begins with plankton.
ERIN MCCOMBS: A lot of the animals that we love start out their lives as plankton as well, things like a lot of fish, shellfish, things like lobsters and crab, often will start out their lives as plankton, too.
HOST: Very cool. And can you tell us a little bit about why whale sharks are important?
ERIN MCCOMBS: Whale sharks are important for a couple different reasons. They have an economic importance for a lot of coastal communities that really depend on them for tourism. But they are often part of a really complex ecosystem, and we have to remember that when we are looking at an ecosystem, that biodiversity is important. Every animal in that ecosystem plays a role, and whatever that role might be, they’re irreplaceable in that ecosystem.
DAVID BADER: I think we often try to kind of ask ourselves that question: why is something valuable? Maybe a better question is: can we imagine an ocean without whale sharks? What if we didn’t have that opportunity to go to Baha or to the Caribbean to see a whale shark, to swim with one? To me, the world would be not as rich, if we did not have that opportunity, so their value can be found in many different ways, from economic to ecosystem, but intrinsically, we need to value whale sharks for their beauty and just how amazing they are.
HOST: And how are these amazing creatures doing? Are they under any threats?
ERIN MCCOMBS: Whale sharks are considered an endangered species. They are sometimes caught as an accidental catch in fisheries, so they’re not meant to be caught but are caught on accident. So things like choosing sustainable seafood can be a really great way of helping whale sharks. Choosing sustainable seafood will also help to protect the whale shark’s habitat and protect the food sources they depend on.
HOST: How can people know what seafood is sustainable?
DAVID BADER: The best thing to do is seek out a local resource that can help to answer that question. Many aquariums have their own seafood sustainability program. The Aquarium of the Pacific has Seafood for the Future, and NOAA has FishWatch. All of those provide great resources to let people know what is safe and sustainable. I think one thing to recognize and realize is that our NOAA Fisheries department is responsible for anything that is caught here in the United States, in our coastal waters, and it’s among the best at being able to monitor and regulate our US wild caught and farmed fisheries. So, when in doubt, choosing to buy United States helps to choose a sustainable product.
HOST: Is there anything else that NOAA or aquariums are doing to protect whale sharks?
ERIN MCCOMBS: Here at the aquarium, we are working to help change people’s views of sharks. When people think of sharks, they might not always be thinking of the most positive things about sharks, and they might not have this really positive image.
DAVID BADER: Yeah, and at the aquarium in particular we give people a chance to not only see sharks, but to touch and experience them, so I think giving people a different view than what is typically portrayed in the media, is one way.
If you ask a marine biologist, growing up, “What did you love about the ocean?” A large portion of them are going to say “sharks,” that they had a fascination with sharks. It was true for me; it was true for Erin. And it’s that beauty, it’s something that really captures our attention and our imagination, and we want people to see that and experience that same thing we felt when we were young.
HOST: Well, thank you so much, Erin and David, for joining us. We really appreciate all you do for whale sharks, for your aquarium, and for the ocean as a whole.
DAVID BADER: Yeah, thanks so much for giving us the opportunity. You know, we love the Octonauts. They’re ocean explorers, just like we wish we could be all the time as well.
ERIN MCCOMBS: Thanks for having us.
MUSIC: [Captain Barnacles’ theme] [Octo-Alert]
HOST: That’s the Octo-Alert! That means it’s time to reveal the answer and the winner of last month’s fan trivia question. The question was: “What is the name of the pretend magazine that Dashi sends her photos to?” The answer: National Sea-A-Graphic! The randomly selected winner is: Oliver N. Congratulations! You won an Octonauts toy set! And for those you didn’t win this month, don’t worry. We’ll have a new fan trivia question up on our website, Twitter, and Facebook pages soon.
Until then, we want to hear your questions. What would you want to ask an expert about whale sharks? We’ll be sure to pass these questions onto our scientists and post their responses on our social media sites.
MUSIC: [Captain Barnacles’ theme]
HOST: Well, that’s it for today’s show. Be sure to check out our website, where you can find more resources on whale sharks from NOAA and from the Aquarium of the Pacific. You can visit the Aquarium of the Pacific in Long Beach, California, to see other types of sharks, or you can try your luck at finding a whale shark in person, in Flower Gardens National Marine Sanctuary off the Texas coast.
HOST: I’m Lauren Gibson, and this has been NOAA & the Octonauts. See you next month!
MUSIC: [Creature Report]
Kwazii, activate creature report!
Creature report, creature report, creature report!
Whale sharks are definitely
The biggest fish in all the sea.
They open up their mouths really wide
And eat whatever swims inside.
Though their mouths are oh-so huge,
Whale sharks all like to eat teeny tiny foods.
Go whale sharks! Go whale sharks! Go whale sharks!
We’re done with our mission. Octonauts, at ease, until the next adventure!
For more information on whale sharks, visit the Aquarium of the Pacific's online learning center offsite link.