Whale Shark Photo Identification Takes Precedence Over Tagging

Whale sharks are one of the more mysterious fish in the sea.  Due to their limited time on the surface and ability to dive hundreds of feet and swim thousands of miles, they are a difficult animal to study.  Scientiests are trying to find out as much as possible about these magificent creatures through observation, tagging efforts, and now photo identification.

Researchers are based around the world where whale sharks are frequently encountered.  In the Caribbean, this includes Mexico, Belize, and Honduras. Getting in the water with these behemoths is the best way to see them in action and study their feeding habits and interactions with boats and humans. This is not always possible, so scientists rely on tagging systems to help with their research.

Currently, there are several tagging systems in place around the world.  Acoustic tags are placed on whale sharks with underwater receivers to help track migrations patterns. As a whale shark swims by a receiver, the location information is recorded. Two different types of satellite tags are also being used to track the animals migrations.  A satellite pop-up tag is placed on the shark and is programmed to release itself after a specified amount of time.  Once the device is floating on the surface of the ocean, it transmits data such as temperature, depth, and gps coordinates to a satellite in the atmosphere where a researcher can access the information.  A second type of satellite tag is location only. The tag is on a short line that floats behind the whale shark. If and when the whale shark surfaces the location is transmitted. A third type of tag is the Visual I.D. tag. Large numbers indicating a year and specific shark are placed on the shark. When sighted by anyone they are asked to report to ECOCEAN with the information. The common problem with all of these methods is the limited funding for tags, trying to get the tags on the whale sharks, and keeping the tags in place.

This leads to what has become and amazing effort by people like you, around the world.  Photo identification.   It is known that each whale shark has a unique spot pattern, or fingerprint, of white dots on its back.  ECOCEAN has adapted a technique used by NASA to identify stars and planets in the universe, to identify an individual shark based on its spots.   This has allowed them to take and analyze thousands of photos taken by tourists swimming with whale sharks and put them in a large database.  Each whale shark has an individual I.D. number and can be looked up to see how often a whale shark has been spotted and where.  It is allowing the reseachers to obtain data at a much faster rate and see where exactly these fish are going each year and to see if there are any patterns in migration. Each year more and more photos are submitted allowing the common tourist to become a whale shark researcher!

If you have a whale shark photo, please submit to<a href=”http://www.whaleshark.org/submit.jsp?langCode=en” target=”_blank”> ECOCEAN</a> and join the effort to find out more about these amazing creatures.

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