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A whale shark, nearly six metres long, swims near the surface of the plankton rich water off Donsol town.
A whale shark, nearly six metres long, swims near the surface of the plankton rich water off Donsol town.

Fishing for clues to the whale shark

A new database will provide vital regional information about the little-known behaviour of the mighty whale shark.

Cruising the oceans like living submarines, whale sharks, at up to 12 metres long and weighing 21 tonnes, are spectacular animals. As well as their size, they migrate immense distances and can dive to a depth of 1km. "They are free-roaming ocean species, travelling vast distances each year and known to be performing dives at depths of up to 1,000 metres," said Jonathan Ali Khan, a wildlife documentary filmmaker. It is perhaps surprising, therefore, that relatively little is known about this behemoth of the seas, the largest fish in existence. That, however, could soon change. Over the weekend, experts at the two-day First Arabian Seas Whale Shark Research Symposium and Workshop in Fujairah announced that a new database is to be developed in the UAE. It is designed to enhance knowledge of the whale shark, particularly in the Arabian Sea. The event, which ended yesterday, was organised by the Dubai-based Mr Khan. The project will form the Gulf arm of a global whale shark database that is held on a website set up in 2003. The site enables anyone to upload images and details of sightings of these beautiful creatures. So far, the Emirates Diving Association, Sultan Qaboos University in Oman, and the Kuwait Environmental Research and Awareness Group have agreed to administer the site's new branch. Dr David Rowat, the chairman of the Marine Conservation Society in the Seychelles, said the regional database would yield valuable information that could fill a "knowledge gap" about the creatures. "It has been suggested that the Arabian region might be important as a pupping [birthing] or mating ground but, as yet, we do not know," he said. "It is too early to say. It is certainly a missing piece of the jigsaw and that piece could be important." One of the most recent local sightings of a whale shark was in October in the bay off the Emirates Palace hotel. Staff took pictures and videos of the animal, and some later took to local fishing boats to help guide it back out into the Gulf. A whale shark was found off Jebel Ali in September last year and taken to the aquarium of the Atlantis Hotel in Dubai. Whale sharks are listed as at risk of extinction by the International Union for Conservation of Nature. Despite their size, they are filter feeders, living off microscopic plankton in the water. Mr Khan decided to organise the forum after he met leading international marine scientists while filming a documentary on whale sharks that is due out next year. He discovered that very little was known about the animals' behaviour in the Arabian Sea. "I realised soon that the easiest way [to encourage local research] is to create a forum where we can share information and learn first-hand from researchers themselves." At the forum a regional research programme to look into the creatures' migration habits was also established. The global database and website was created by Brad Norman, an Australian marine biologist who attended the forum. He and Jason Holmberg, an IT specialist, developed a computer software tool that can identify individual whale sharks by the unique spot patterns on the skin behind their gills. During the forum, Mr Norman held workshops to show conservationists how to use the software. The global project, with which the regional database will be integrated, is called the Ecocean whale shark photo-id library, and can be found at www.whaleshark.org. As with the new regional database, the project relies on lay people logging on and uploading their pictures of sightings. "The general public can become citizen scientists," Mr Norman said. The library contains more than 24,000 photos from 43 countries taken by divers, fishermen, boat owners and the general public. As late as the mid-1980s there were fewer than 350 confirmed sightings of whale sharks worldwide. The data, Mr Norman said, could help scientists in a number of ways. "You can start doing the science on finding the actual number of whale sharks visiting an actual country. "And, if we continue this from year to year, we can get an idea of whether the numbers are increasing or decreasing. This is a way of tracking whale sharks by using a non-invasive method." vtodorova@thenational.ae

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