26-foot-long whale shark may unlock mysteries of birth, mating during 100-year lifespan

Rio Lady, a 26-foot-long female whale shark, is one heck of a wanderer. Scientists are learning she is quite a teacher too.

Last month, Rio Lady sent up a satellite signal from the warm waters of the Gulf of Mexico. It was the latest “ping” of a journey that covered thousands of miles in less than two years. Along the way, a team of researchers monitoring her progress are working to unlock the many mysteries of one of the world’s largest creatures.

Rio Lady is unique and has a long relationship with her observers. She first was tagged by a team of researchers in August 2007 near Isla Mujeres, an island off the coast of Cancun, Mexico, on the northeastern tip of the Yucatan Peninsula.

The waters there draw massive numbers of tiny baitfish and plankton each May through September. Huge numbers of whale sharks gather to feast on them.

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Rafael de la Parra, executive director of Ch’ooj Ajauil AC, an ocean conservation organization in Mexico, affixes a satellite tag to the dorsal fin of whale shark Rio Lady in 2018.
Rafael de la Parra, executive director of Ch’ooj Ajauil AC, an ocean conservation organization in Mexico, affixes a satellite tag to the dorsal fin of whale shark Rio Lady in 2018.

The annual migration has made it a popular spot for divers, who charter boats for the chance to see these gentle giants up close. Scientists have used the gathering as an opportunity to study the sharks.

Rio Lady, when she was first encountered, had a huge girth, leading the team that tagged her to believe she was pregnant. They used a satellite pop-off tag designed to detach after five months. The tag popped off 5,000 miles away, in the southern Atlantic Ocean between Brazil and Africa.

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Researchers believe she went there to give live birth in deep waters to an estimated 200 to 300 pups that grew from eggs inside her.

Scientists don’t know how many times whale sharks give birth during their 100-year lifespan, and no one has reported seeing them mate.

9,621 miles in 620 days

Since 2011, Rio Lady has been an annual visitor to Isla Mujeres, and since August 2018, scientists have had more accurate information about her position in real time. 

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