Little did I know, my life would take a new direction one week after my arrival. The day I swam with a whale shark for the first time. It is twelve years later and I own a dive shop and resort. I work harder than ever before. But I love it. And there are more of us dedicated to finding out more about whale sharks than ever before.
Apart from the dive shop and resort, I felt I had to do more work with whale sharks. No one really knew much about them on Utila. Local fisherman had seen them for years and divers who visited Utila, swam with them throughout the year, but there was no documentation. How often did they come? Why? Where did the come from? Where did they go next? What attracted them to this particular spot in the Caribbean? I decided I wanted to know more.
I spent weeks on the internet trying to find out as much information as I could about these giants. Everytime I contacted someone to find out more, the most I found out was they had electronically tagged a few whale sharks but very little was known. How was this possible? I researched the tagging systems. All were deficient in some way. Visual ID Tags had the advantage of being very cheap but did not last long due to algae build up. They became unreadable quickly. Waiting to see if another researcher reported seeing this tag was also a deterrent.
Acoustic tags work by placing receivers in a permanent location in the ocean where whale sharks pass frequently. After the cost of the receivers, the tags themselves are over $1000 and the after placement , the shark needs to pass within 500 meters. This method is difficult when trying to track in deep water.
SPOT Tags (Smart Position Only Tags) track the animals position in the water using GPS. Positively buoyant, the SPOT are placed on the whale shark with a long tether. When the animal nears the surface the tag will float and send a position signal via satellite. This can be useful for trying to track migration. But there is more information needed.
A PAT Tag (Pop Off Archival Tag) is the big boys toy of whale shark research. At $3500, the tag is programmed to come off the whale shark at a specified time and can give information on depth, direction, and light emissions.
After countless hours of my own research, I finally stumbled upon a company call Ecocean.org, run by Dr. Brad Norman in Australia. He had found that the sports behind gills of the whale shark were like a fingerprint-individual to each shark. Therefore a shark could be recognized with a photograph.
I contacted Dr. Norman through Jason Holmberg, who had spent over 8,000 hours working on this project in the Galapagos. He agreed to help Honduras and the Whale Shark and took on the project.
The great thing about Ecocean is it is “citizen science”, anyone can get involved. Diver, snorkeler, researcher, student, professional, whoever is in the water with a camera can take a photo and enter it into the Ecocean library. Once entered into the system, the whale shark can be identified and recognized as previously seen and a history will appear, or it will be classed as a new whale shark and you will receive notification each time it is seen and reported in the future.
Here is the perfect identification photo.
The third original member in Ecocean.org is Zaven Arzoumanian, Director and President. Mr. Arzoumanian is the key to the whale shark “fingerprint” ID. A scientist at NASA, and a fan of the whale shark, he was able to adapt a pattern matching application used at NASA to identify stars. This adaptaion is what allows Ecocean. org to analyze spots on the whale shark for identification.
The success of photo identification is seen in the table below. This process is now used around the world and is a principal source of whale shark research. Number of sharks in the library=4218. Number of total encounters in the library=21,826. I encourage any whale shark enthusiast, take a photo, send it in. Help save the whale shark.
Steve Fox, Owner, Deep Blue Resort, Utila, Honduras
For more information on whale sharks and diving in Utila visit http://www.deepblueutila.com