My Ningaloo whale shark experience wasn’t over yet…
In Exmouth I’d happened to be shacked up opposite Ecocean researchers who were in town for the whale shark season, led by an international man of mystery bent on global conservation. After I got home I joined his worldwide organisation and became a whale shark boffin. YEAH BABY!
Being on my own I found the Ecocean crew to be great company… I got along great with Supreme Leader Brad (marine conservation biologist and founder of Ecocean), a fellow Murdoch Uni alumni and movie buff who shared freely both his passion for the ocean and his vegemite. Cameron (environmental science major) was your typical laconic Aussie bloke – plays rugby, swears a lot. Giggles. Jumps on sharks’ heads.* Caitlin (environmental management major) was a Brisi girl yaaay and seemed to be good at everything, and Alex (website guru) did his Brit heritage proud with amazing X Factor-level crooning and reciting entire scenes of Monty Python movies verbatim.
During my six day stay we went from casual hellos to my stickybeaking their equipment to swapping food to finally sharing one of Brad’s famous chicken dinners and getting slightly pished over several bottles of red wine etc on my last night.
Along the way I learned about some of the amazing work they do in research and conservation. The Ningaloo Coast World Heritage area is hugely important to hundreds of marine species, and from March to August it’s home to one of the largest and best protected whale shark aggregations in the world.
If the crew weren’t out on a boat they were variously mapping satellite trackers, studying photos of the rinky dinks (ie Rhincodon typus, as I explained in my last post – pay attention!), or refining their method for measuring whale sharks; highly tricky because it has to be done on the move, from a distance. They shine laser pointers fixed 50cm apart onto their flanks for scale in photos, but when you have animals several metres long, fitting them in a viewfinder means you’re too far off to pick up details such as small red laser dots, and if you come in closer you crop out some of the length! Like I said, tricky.
Wait what? Sharks? And lasers?
But the coolest thing I learned was that everyone who swims with a whale shark can help! All I had to do was try to get a half decent shot of it, specifically the area where the dorsal fin meets the body down to the fifth gill slit.
A whale shark’s spot pattern is unique to every animal, like human fingerprints, and like fingerprints it’s hard to tell them apart just by looking. Brad and an astrophysicist mate at NASA came up with a solution by modifying pattern-recognition software used to identify star constellations so it would identify whale sharks by their spot patterns. How cool is that?? Whale sharks: literally the stars of Ningaloo!
Thus Wildbook was born. It’s now the largest whale shark monitoring program in the world, with over 50,000 images taken by people in 54 countries from Australia and the Galapagos Islands to Thailand and Tanzania. Marine biologists use it to track migrations and individual rinkies and monitor population numbers, but anyone can upload photos. I did!
When I was sorting my images to upload to Wildbook I thought I’d sent shots of two, maybe three rinkies but I’d just confused myself by using photos of both sides of only one fish. #duh
(Well I am an amateur scientist and you get what you pay for.)
I submitted the shots and the following day got an email saying they’d matched ‘my’ shark to one in the library! His or her codename is A-247 and he or she has been sighted multiple times since 2002.
There was also an option to ‘adopt’ this whale shark, which I did, for Finn and Rory. We’re supporting whale shark research, plus every time someone in the world uploads a photo of ‘our’ shark we’ll get an email update. He/she could go anywhere! We were also able to give poor old A-247 a nickname; I thought ‘Ziggy’ was appropriate because of the zigzag pattern behind the left dorsal fin. I also got a whale shark toy (available in Ecocean’s online shop) for the boys and they’ve named it “Rainbow Bullet Shark”.
So if you happen to be heading to Ningaloo (or elsewhere!) for the rinky dinks, check out Ecocean’s website including their photography tips first so your holiday photos can help make a difference.You don’t need to swim with whale sharks to help save them though; adopt a whale shark today!
*Private joke – of course he doesn’t jump on sharks’ heads! He might punch them, but only if they looked at him funny.