Researchers tracking whale sharks have some interesting info

Whale sharks are endangered, hard to track, and minimally protected, but thanks to a new tracking study and a lot more information, scientists have been able to monitor the movement of these gentle ocean giants. The information they’ve published has been anything but normal, and their data is generating more questions than answers.

What are whale sharks?

Whale sharks are enormous, but unless you’re plankton, you have no reason to be afraid. These animals can grow to be over 40 feet in length, but just like a lot of whales, they’re filter feeders. This means that instead of grabbing seals and fish with massive teeth like their shark colleagues, whale sharks simply filter their favorite foods through their mouths, leaving bigger prey to the more aggressive fish.

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Whale sharks are warm water lovers and live in tropical waters around the world. But today, there are significantly fewer whale sharks in our oceans than there were even a handful of years ago. Whale sharks fall prey to all sorts of oceanic disasters: they’re caught and killed as bycatch, fatally hit by boats, and affected by water pollution.

How do scientists track whale sharks?

Scientists at King Abdullah University for Science and Technology in Saudi Arabia paired with researchers from the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution in the United States to track the movements of nearly one hundred whale sharks around the Shib Habil reef in the Red Sea. They watched the site carefully for six years, paying special attention to their 84 focus sharks to determine if Shib Habil was a one-time pit stop or a routinely returned-to hot spot. What they discovered was a surprise: whale sharks seemed to return to Shib Habil every year.

Whale sharks are enormous, but unless you’re plankton, you have no reason to be afraid.

Other teams around the world have been watching whale sharks, too. The scientists at Conservation International in Indonesia, have been effectively attaching trackers to whale sharks’ dorsal fins to track their movement in real-time. Researchers in Hawaii don’t have high-tech tracking devices, but they’ve still been noticing an increase in whale sharks along their coasts through anecdotal evidence and tourist snapshots.

Why does whale shark movement matter?

Now that scientists have a better idea of where the whale sharks are going and how long they’re staying, they can come to some conclusions about these animals’ needs and behaviors. This information isn’t just interesting, it could help save whale sharks from extinction.

For example, researchers discovered that sharks returned to the Shib Habil reef regularly, usually in April and May. They are now theorizing that the spot may be a breeding ground or nursery for the sharks, making it essential for the continuation of the species. Researchers hope that these findings will encourage stricter protection laws for whale sharks around the world, but especially in these special spots.

In places like Hawaii, whale shark travel and sightings could be even more important. Even though whale sharks are an endangered species, Stacia Goecke, founder of the Hawaii Uncharted Research Collective, worries about these beautiful animals, saying, “there’s absolutely no protection for them in U.S. waters.” The data that Goecke and her team are collecting could lead to changes in protections for these beautiful beasts.

What they discovered was a surprise: whale sharks seemed to return to Shib Habil every year.

Whether it’s through legislation protecting whale sharks in certain areas of the world or increased boater awareness, whale shark researchers all hope that their findings will lead to further protection and an increase in whale shark populations. Finding whale sharks returning to places over and over or in entirely new locations is exciting, especially if it helps us boost our efforts to protect them.

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