Way back in 2005, my long-time friend and colleague Dr Andrea Marshall suggested that I come over to Mozambique, help her out with her manta ray research, and start up a whale shark research program.
I’d never actually seen a whale shark at that stage but, hey, sounded fun.
It turned out to be a life-changing opportunity. Africa is amazing, and whale sharks turned out to be big, spotty, and thoroughly endearing. I wanted to learn more about these gentle giants, and to help them out by developing effective conservation initiatives.
More than a decade later, that’s still how I like to spend my time.
How do we research whale sharks?
First, we like to know which shark we’re dealing with. Every whale shark has a distinctive pattern of white spots on their upper surfaces and, by taking photographs of each flank, we can reliably identify individual sharks over time. That means we can count how many sharks we see, and track their movements and behaviours.
All whale shark researchers are using the same area of the sharks’ body for photo-ID. This has become a global effort thanks to the Global Whale Shark Photo-ID Library. Over 8000 individual whale sharks have now been identified from over 50 countries. Many of these identification photographs have been submitted by the interested public. This database represents a notable success for ‘citizen science’.
What are the goals of our research?
Our overall objectives aren’t complicated. In 2016, Dr Brad Norman and I
Whale sharMy interest is in helping whale shark populations recover
How many subpopulations are there?
Key threats to each subpopulation
Protect high-value aggregation sites
Improve ecological understanding of size- and sex-based segregation
Whale shark are a very popular species with marine tourists, and there are several sites where sharks, particularly juvenile males for some reason, can be seen fairly reliably each year. I think that tourism has been largely positive for whale sharks, creating an economic incentive to ensure that they are managed well, but it has led to the need to evaluate the impacts of swimmers on the sharks.
We have done considerable work on this, both in developing science-based codes of practice and monitoring protocols and conducting guide and skipper training in Madagascar, Mozambique and (with Sea Sense) in Tanzania.
‘Team Whale Shark’ at MMF
We have a great team in Mozambique, and now around the world. Pete Haskell completed his MSc (Distinction) on whale shark tourism in 2010. Dr Chris Rohner, my first PhD student, finished his doctoral thesis on Mozambican whale sharks in 2013 and has been leading our project at Mafia Island in Tanzania since 2012. Clare Prebble joined MMF as a Project Manager in 2011, has been running day-to-day operations in Mozambique since 2012, and is now also a PhD candidate at the National Oceanography Centre at the University of Southampton, UK. I’ve also had some fantastic long-term project assistants over the last few years, including Peter Bassett (who has now started Aquatic Alliance in Indonesia).
Dr Chris Rohner assessing the maturity of a male shark
Where do we work?
As of 2017, we work in…
- The Arabian Region with Sharkwatch Arabia .
- Ecuador (Galapagos) with the Galapagos Whale Shark Project.
- Madagascar (Nosy Be) with the Madagascar Whale Shark Project.
- Mexico (Quintana Roo) with Ch’ooj Ajauil AC.
- Mozambique (Inhambane) with the Marine Megafauna Association.
- The Philippines (Tubbataha Reefs Natural Park and elsewhere) with the Large Marine Vertebrates Research Institute.
- Tanzania (Mafia Island) with WWF Tanzania, TAFIRI and KAUST.
We also have global collaborations underway on biochemical and genetic analysis projects.
I try to keep up a running commentary on our fieldwork here on my shark biology blog, and if I’m behind on that material there’s still a good chance I’ve been procrastinating on Instagram or Facebook.
What have we achieved?
Whale shark off Mafia Island, Tanzania
Unfortunately, even though some of the largest fisheries for whale sharks have now closed – generally after running out of sharks to catch – there are still serious human threats to whale shark populations. We need to provide effective protection to their key habitats. We’re lucky in that whale sharks, with their huge size and placid natures, are very popular with marine tourists. We are working with the tourism industry to ensure that these activities are sustainable.
How is this work funded?
Want to join us in the field?
If you’d like to participate in this work, we do public research expeditions each year.