The conservation of whale sharks, like other endangered species, requires, among others factors, an understanding of the effects that variability in habitat have on long-term species viability. In the Mexican Northern Caribbean, a Habitat Monitoring Program for the whale shark was established in 2005 to describe the spatio-temporal variability of environmental data and whale shark distribution. From 2005–2014, when whale sharks were present in the region (May to September), monthly trips were made to record whale shark sightings and hydrological data (sea surface temperature, salinity and dissolved oxygen). Water samples were collected to determine nutrients (nitrite, nitrate, ammonium, silicates and phosphates), as well as chlorophyll-a (Chl-a) and zooplankton biomass. We compared the environmental variables at sites with and without whale sharks present. Maps of zooplankton biomass were produced for each year in order to explore their relationship with the distribution and abundance of whale sharks. Areas with high whale shark abundance have been identified inside the study region. At these sites the whale shark feeds, taking advantage of the abundance of zooplankton, as a result of two events: the intensity of the Yucatan upwelling and the presence of dense masses of fish eggs. The whale shark aggregation areas influenced by the upwelling were characterized by high Chl-a concentrations (mean±SE 0.9±0.4 mg/m3), high nutrients and mixed zooplankton in which several groups were present (usually copepods were the most abundant group). In the whale shark aggregation area called “Afuera”, the zooplankton samples were dominated by fish eggs. This area registered significantly higher zooplankton biomass (mean±SE 3356.1±1960.8 mg/m3) in comparison with that recorded in upwelling areas (mean±SE 103.5±57.2 mg/m3). Zooplankton biomass was the most influential environmental variable to determine whale shark abundance, supporting the close relationship between this species and their food availability. Spatio-temporal changes in distribution and abundance of whale sharks have been recorded in the region, as well as changes in their food availability. The whale shark uses selected areas within the Mexican Caribbean. These areas have different hydrobiological characteristics. Changes in distribution and abundance of whale sharks inside the study area may make it more difficult to implement suitable management strategies. We need more data to understand the reason for these changes, for example increased knowledge about the ocean circulation patterns at this site and other factors that may influence and characterize spawning inside the aggregation area. The continuity of hydrobiological monitoring is key to ensure the integrity of this critical habitat.


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