Ocean News

Whale Shark Encounters

2nd February 2009

For most divers seeing a whale shark is at the top of their ‘must see’ list, a once in a lifetime experience to swim with the biggest fish on our planet.  I will always remember the first time I saw a whale shark; it was just a glimpse of a huge dark shadow, the shark’s giant tail cutting scythe-like motions through the water as it disappeared down into the gloom y depths.  That was back in 2003 and over the last six years I have been lucky enough to see many dozens of these giant tadpoles. However, my good fortune with encounters has not diminished my fascination for whale sharks, nor has it reduced the awe and excitement I feel each time I immerse myself in the water with a fish large enough to create a shadow so big that when it swims over your head you think a cloud has covered the sun.

During the South West Monsoon (May-Nov) here in the Maldives at one of my key study sites the manta rays are joined by dozens of whale sharks which feed alongside them in the shallows.  The following images are just a sample of some of the encounters I have been lucky enough to witness over the last few years.

As well as studying the manta rays, in 2007 I started the whale shark project to try and figure out what these elusive animals were getting up to when they were not feeding at my study sites. I joined forces with several other marine biologists to specifically find out just how many whale sharks there are in the Maldives, what threats they are facing, if the population resident, or do they migrate away from the country to other populations elsewhere in the Indian Ocean.

In total the whale shark project now has over a hundred sharks in its photo-identification database; this in itself is an amazing accomplishment which has only been possible with the help of scientists, tourists and dive masters, who have all contributed valuable sightings to the project, going back well over ten years. But even more important is the total sighting data (of about 450 sightings) which is telling us that while we are seeing lots of encounters at key sites, they are all the same individuals year after year.  This is key, because if the Maldives has a total population estimate of only around 150-200 sharks at any one time, then we really need to protect them.  A loss of just a few individuals through fining or from accidental boat injuries each year will have dramatic impacts on the overall population.

It’s essential that those key areas which whale sharks frequent are protected, and that efforts are taken to reduce the current negative impacts which are occurring in these areas.  To identify these key sites and to further map the migration corridors between them, this year the whale shark project plans to actively track and satellite tag several whale sharks.

For more information on the Whale Shark Project please visit our website at: www.whalesharkresearch.co.uk, and if you have any images of whale sharks taken in the Maldives over the years please send them to whalesharkproject@yahoo.com along with the date and location at which the pictures were taken.