The largest living shark isn’t a Megalodon. It isn’t a great white or any other shark with rows upon rows of seal-shredding teeth. The largest shark — and largest fish — on Earth is one of the most serene and beautiful animals. Whale sharks couldn’t be further from the chum-fed whites of Shark Week or the dramatizations of JAWS.
A sad reality of the media’s portrayal of sharks is that it tends to focus on the ones that are fearsome predators, the ones that (almost never) attack people. Great whites, bull sharks, and tiger sharks may be the poster children, but there are nearly 400 different species of shark that range from the recognizable and toothy grin of whites to the fin-walking adorableness that is the epaulette shark. So when a shark video comes along that can make you cry with its sheer wonder and beauty, it deserves some attention.
Below is a video of the 2nd largest aquarium in the world and the serene whale sharks it holds. It might make you cry (the music helps), so be sure to go full-screen and HD:
That is the Okinawa Churaumi Aquarium. After the World’s Fair in Okinawa, Japan, this massive aquarium was opened in 2002 to keep tourism alive.
The main tank, called the “Kuroshio Sea,” holds 7,500-cubic meters (1,981,290 gallons) of water and features the world’s second largest acrylic glass panel (an incredible 2 feet thick). Whale sharks and manta rays are kept among the many other fish species in the main tank. Look how small the whale sharks — which can stretch over 40 feet (13 meters) long and weigh over 45,000 pounds (22 metric tons) — look in that gigantic tank.
The world’s largest fish are harmless gulpers of small sea life: krill, plankton, and small fish. Over a 70-year lifespan, these gentle giants glide through tropical and temperate seas, delightfully polka-dotted and happy with being the largest living non-mammalian creature with a backbone.
Contrast the video above with something you might find on major media networks. For me, the first thing I get out of the video is wonder, awe, and a serious case of feels. There isn’t any fear, there are no jump-cuts or dramatizations involving buckets of fake blood. Imagine if the whale shark, harmless and beautiful, was the face of shark-related media and conservation.
The enthusiasm doesn’t evaporate when there isn’t any cage diving or water chumming. All sharks are incredible! Evolutionarily, they are older than the dinosaurs; sharks are older than trees! Half-a-billion years’ worth of evolution has created animals that could not be better suited to their environment. Many sharks have special sense organs called ampullae of Lorenzini, which can detect the electric fields that bend outward from other organisms in the water. Other sharks like the goblin shark have jaws that are hardly attached their bodies at all, letting them launch teeth at prey like a rocket-powered bear trap. The elusive Greenland shark can rival a great white in terms of size and may live for two centuries. This shark glows in the dark and has a cookiecutter for a mouth.
Yes, there is something fundamentally scary about a predator larger, more agile, and better equipped than us patrolling an environment that we find alien. But fear gives way to wonder when you see the stunning diversity of sharks presented in a way that isn’t specifically designed to scare us, as popular media often intends to do.
Fear and misunderstanding is a big reason why species like the whale shark are considered a vulnerable species. To put this unwarranted fear into perspective, we kill about three sharks per second, mostly for shark fin soup. More people have been killed by dogs in the last 10 years than by sharks in the last 450 years. Jack Bauer of 24 has killed more people than all sharks since we’ve had records! They aren’t monsters and they aren’t out to get you.
If the beautiful video above says anything, it’s that maybe our first, most visceral reaction to sharks was wrong all along.
Kyle Hill is the Chief Science Officer of the Nerdist enterprise. Follow the continued geekery on Twitter: @Sci_Phile.