An Unprecedented Aggregation of Whale Sharks, Rhincodon typus, in Mexican Coastal Waters of the Caribbean Sea
de la Parra Venegas, Rafael
González Cano, Jaime
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Whale sharks, Rhincodon typus, are often perceived as solitary behemoths that live and feed in the open ocean. To the contrary, evidence is accumulating that they are gregarious and form seasonal aggregations in some coastal waters. One such aggregation occurs annually north of Cabo Catoche, off Isla Holbox on the Yucatán Peninsula of Mexico. Here we report a second, much denser aggregation of whale sharks (dubbed “the Afuera”) that occurs east of the tip of the Yucatán Peninsula in the Caribbean Sea. The 2009 Afuera event comprised the largest aggregation of whale sharks ever reported, with up to 420 whale sharks observed in a single aerial survey, all gathered in an elliptical patch of ocean approximately 18 km2. Plankton studies indicated that the sharks were feeding on dense homogenous patches of fish eggs, which DNA barcoding analysis identified as belonging to little tunny, Euthynnus alletteratus. This contrasts with the annual Cabo Catoche aggregation nearby, where prey consists mostly of copepods and sergestid shrimp. Increased sightings at the Afuera coincide with decreased sightings at Cabo Catoche, and both groups have the same sex ratio, implying that the same animals are likely involved in both aggregations; tagging data support this idea. With two whale shark aggregation areas, high coastal productivity and a previously-unknown scombrid spawning ground, the northeastern Yucatán marine region is a critical habitat that deserves more concerted conservation efforts.