By Elson T. Elizaga
ON THE NIGHT OF FEBRUARY 20, 1998, three fishermen in Macajalar Bay, Cagayan de Oro caught a fish they couldn't identify. A local radio station reported the find the following morning. The fish was later hacked into pieces and consumed that day. Subsequent reports, quoting government sources, said the strange fish was a whale shark. But research conducted by this writer using the Internet revealed that it was a megamouth, an extremely rare species with previously only 10 sightings worldwide. 
Landing of megamouth 11 in Puerto, Cagayan de Oro
Fishermen captured the shark six kilometers from their home in barangay Puerto.

Important find. Shark researcher Ben S. Roesch from Toronto, Ontario, Canada was the first to identify the shark as megamouth. In response to a photo sent by this writer, Roesch replied in an email: "The shark is, as you suspected, a megamouth (Megachasma pelagios). Needless to say, this is an important find as megamouths are rare." Roesch was 17 and studying in grade 11 in high school.

Map is cropped from Encarta World Atlas 1998.When told that this writer was also consulting the Shark Research Institute (SRI) of New Jersey, Roesch wrote back: "I am quite sure the SRI will also identify it as a megamouth. I'd bet anything on it! But I understand your need for confirmation." 

As expected, Marie Levine of SRI, who received three photos from this writer, wrote: "It sure looks like a megamouth shark to me. Will check with Dr. Leonard Compagno Read about the details of the capture and get back to you soon." Levine wrote that Compagno is the Director of Science and Research of SRI and is "the world's leading shark taxonomist and author of the FAO [Food and Agriculture Organization] World Catalogue of Sharks." She added that Compagno could determine if the shark was a newly discovered species. 

No question. While waiting for Compagno's response, this writer received an email on March 19 from Dr. John F. Morrissey, Associate Professor of the Department of Biology in Hofstra University, Hempstead, New York. The complete text: "No question! That is megamouth #11! Congratulations!! If you obtain any additional information about the specimen or its capture, please let me know. I will inform the members of the American Elasmobranch Society [AES] about your exciting news! Thanks again for sharing it with me!" 

Morrissey was 1997 president of the AES and is one of the editors of the 1997 book "Biology of the Megamouth Shark". Morrissey had received three photos on the shark from this writer. 

Biology of the Megamouth Shark
Photo courtesy of Jim Bourdon.

First in the Philippines. Photos sent to Compagno returned to this writer apparently because of technical problems with the server. But on March 21, Compagno wrote back: "I received the three photographs via email. The photos appear to show a large megamouth shark (Megachasma pelagios). Apparently, this is the first recorded discovery of the species in the Philippines. If you have additional photos or other information about the size and sex of the shark, the details of its capture and what happened to it afterwards, please let me know." 

Compagno's email indicates his position as Curator of Fishes; Head, Shark Research Center, Division of Life Sciences, South African Museum, Cape Town, South Africa. 

Revised. On March 30, the Florida Museum of Natural History updated its online map and distribution table of megamouth sightings. These documents now mention the finding in Cagayan de Oro, Philippines. 

THE FIRST MEGAMOUTH WAS CAUGHT IN 1976 by the US Navy in Oahu, Hawaii and after that only 10 others have been recorded found. The last recorded sighting -- prior to the discovery in the Philippines -- was on May 1997 in Toba, Japan. Photos of the shark are also rare and usually show a dead specimen, but underwater photographer Tom Haight has shots of one alive. 
Megamouth 9
Megamouth 9 in Brazil

Little is known about the megamouth, but according to Lee Krystek in his Gallery of Cryptozoological Alumni (1996), "This extremely rare shark is harmless to humans. Its huge mouth is full of tiny teeth which are used to filter the water as the animal sucks in tiny shrimp and plankton that make up its diet. Two other members of the shark family, the basking shark and the whale shark, use the same feeding technique." 

A 1996 reference made by Melissa Kim of the University of Michigan contains a description of megamouth movement: "This shark behaves similarly to the fish of the deep scattering layer. It migrates vertically during a twenty-four hour cycle, swimming at depths of 200 meters below the surface by day, and ascending to 10-15 meters below the surface by night. It flees from minute disturbance into deep depths, which may explain why this species remained undiscovered for so long." 


A MYSTERIOUS FACT ABOUT THE MEGAMOUTH is that, according to the distribution table prepared by Morrissey, five of the first six megamouths found were males, the other being of unknown gender because it was discarded. So when the first female megamouth was discovered in 1994 in Fukuoka, Japan, an excited international team of scientists examined the carcass, resulting in the publication of "Biology of the Megamouth Shark". 

Despite this document and several research papers, interest in finding another female megamouth remains very high. Most shark experts consulted by this writer requested to be informed about the gender of the Philippine megamouth. When this writer asked Kazuhiro Nakaya, an Associate Professor of the Faculty of Fisheries of Hokkaido University, he explained: 

"One of our great interests is to discover an embryo in the uterus of the megamouth. But we have not found any in the two females. So, very little of the reproductive organs is known, and nothing is known about the reproductive biology of the megamouth shark ... If you find the female, you should keep the specimen. If not, keep the whole internal organs. You can throw the liver away, because of its enormous size, but keep the rest of the internal organs. Please bear this [advice] in mind, and watch for another megamouth. I will be happy to help you in this matter or with regards to other sharks in the Philippines."

Nakaya is also one of the editors of "Biology of the Megamouth Shark".  

How to identify the gender? "The male megamouth," according to Nakaya, "has a pair of claspers on inner side of pelvic fin, but the female has no clasper." George H. Burgess describes the claspers as "large modifications of the pelvic fins used as intromittent organs during copulation." He writes that these are all found on all male sharks. Burgess is the Director of the International Shark Attack File, Florida Museum of Natural History, University of Florida. 

Megamouth 4
Male megamouth 4 showing claspers. Middle large mass is part of intestine pushed out.
In response to the request of this writer, Nakaya sent photos of a male and female megamouths. A photo of a male megamouth was shown to the fishermen in May, with the explanation that claspers are absent in females. The fishermen said they saw the same pair of prominent claspers on megamouth 11. end-black-square  
A Local Name

Dissecting a megamouthMonths after the discovery of megamouth 11, this writer showed photos of megamouth 11 to three men in Talisayan, a fishing community where whale sharks had been hunted for years. They identified the megamouth as tanguy tanguy. When asked why, they explained its body is soft like a mushroom called tanguy tanguy. They added they don't catch this huge fish because the meat content is too small and not financially profitable. Marilyn Baldo, a former employee of the Department of Tourism, also talked to fishermen in Talisayan. She was also told about the fishermen's familiarity with tanguy tanguy. It appears Talisayan is the only place in the world where the megamouth has a local name.

Talisayan is a municipality of Misamis Oriental. It is 81 kilometers from Cagayan de Oro.

More megamouths have been captured in Cagayan de Oro since 1998. Megamouth 18 was consumed in January 2003. Two years later, megamouth 28 was caught in a net off Macajalar Bay. It was dissected and buried. Still more have been found. In July 5, 2019,
a megamouth was consumed again in Cagayan de Oro.

Related articles
  1. "Whale sharks sighted in Iligan Bay" by Lina Sagaral Reyes
  2. "Vote for Sharks" by Elson T. Elizaga
  3. The German article about megamouth 11
  4. John F. Morrissey and Elson T. Elizaga, "Capture of Megamouth 11 in the Philippines", The Philippine Scientist (San Carlos Publications, University of the Philippines, Cebu City, Philippines), vol. 36, 1999.
  5. "Pregnant megamouth shark recorded for the first time by zoologists" (Inquirer, December 1, 2023); "Megamouth shark and her babies found dead in the Philippines (Forbes, December 2, 2023.)

This webpage was published on March 18, 1998. Updated December 8, 2023.