In mid-January of this year, “Ralph” the whale shark (Rhincodon typus) died at the Georgia Aquarium. Most initial news reports suggested that no one had any idea why the giant shark stopped swimming and soon died, the aquarium later admitting that the shark had not been eating for some time. In order to ensure that the animal gained enough nutrition, aquarium staff force-fed Ralph with a tube shoved down his throat, but this course did not help the shark.
The cause of death was reported to be peritonitis caused by a puncture in Ralph’s stomach. Aquarium staff and some researchers present suggested that the PVC pipe used to feed Ralph did not cause the fatal perforation of the stomach, although they conceded that it may have been contributory to his ill-health. Another male whale shark, “Norton,” stopped eating for a time as well, but I can only assume that he has recovered as there has been no more news, and I can’t say I’ve heard anything involving the female whale sharks Alice & Trixie. In the wake of Ralph’s death, Taiwan (which supplied the aquarium with the sharks) was reluctant to give the exhibitors any more, but apparently they gave in as two new whale sharks arrived at the aquarium today.
I really don’t see the reason for adding two more whale sharks when the aquarium already had three and one died from causes that no one at the aquarium seems to understand (either that or they’re lying). Every now and then I hear the assertion that these animals should be kept for a breeding program, but for a breeding program you need to be able to keep animals alive and well in captivity, something that is even more difficult with pelagic marine species. Plus, even if the sharks did breed we would have to assume they’d want to release the babies into the wild or that any country would let them do so, so I can’t even be sure they have “good intentions.” I do not have high hopes for the new whale sharks, and I have to wonder if they feel a bit cramped; whale sharks are large and far-ranging, and even the biggest aquarium is probably too small.
Unfortunately the Georgia Aquarium hasn’t been exactly forthcoming with information regarding Ralph’s death, nor are they likely to. If it was discovered that they contributed to the death of a threatened animal through lax husbandry practices (which I think is quite likely), they’d lose a lot of credibility and perhaps even the ability to collect rare specimens in the future, making it in the best interests to simply wave their hands around and side-step questions whenever the name “Ralph” comes up.