x Abu Dhabi, UAEFriday 21 July 2017

Map tracks progress of Atlantis whale shark

A satellite tag captured the fish's movements for a month after its release from the Dubai resort.

After its release from Atlantis, the shark swam 348km southwest through the Gulf toward Qatar.
After its release from Atlantis, the shark swam 348km southwest through the Gulf toward Qatar.

For more than a year it was kept in an aquarium that many said was too small, sparking online protests, an outcry from animal rights advocates and international media attention. Now, it seems the whale shark that brought so much negative attention in its early days at the Atlantis, The Palm's Ambassador Lagoon, has made a run for it. At least as far as Qatar.

Yesterday, a map was released showing the animal's whereabouts from March 18, when Atlantis said it returned the whale shark to sea, to April 20, when a satellite device that had been fitted on to the creature became detached. The map was drawn by scientists at the Mote Centre for Shark Research at the Mote Marine Laboratory, in Sarasota, Florida, after a tracking device that had been recording its movements over the 33-day period popped up to the surface and beamed the information it gathered over satellite. It was hoped the device would stay on for 90 days, but it fell off early.

A statement from the centre said the results were not released until yesterday because staff needed time to process the data. The whale shark showed normal swimming behaviour during the month it was tracked, diving and surfacing regularly, according to a report from the research centre, which is not affiliated with Atlantis or its parent company, Kerzner International. "After Atlantis staff tagged and released her off Dubai, the whale shark took a mostly westward path through the Arabian Gulf, travelling south of Iran and then curving southward to waters off the coast of Qatar, ending up about 348km west of her starting point," said Dr Robert Hueter, the centre's director and leader of the tracking project.

Dr Hueter was not present for the release but pointed out that he had provided instructions to the Atlantis fish husbandry team. Mote has satellite-tagged 30 other whale sharks in the wild. The 4.6-metre-long whale shark has been a subject of controversy since its capture in August 2008. Atlantis deemed it a rescue, while environmentalists argued that it had been caught to pull crowds to the aquarium.

News of the animal's release in March was greeted by speculation as to the animal's welfare - or whether it was even still alive. No independent observers were present to verify the report. Jonathan Ali Khan, a Dubai-based documentary film-maker and one of staunchest critics of Atlantis, toned down his scepticism yesterday. "I do believe this [report] is genuine," he said. Mr Khan is working on a two-part documentary, entitled Sharkquest Arabia, which will feature whale sharks prominently. He agreed that it was not unusual for satellite tags to detach early. The location where the tag floated up to the surface tends to attract large whale sharks, normally in May, albeit rarely females, he said.

"The fact that she ended up right in the same location where whale shark aggregations are known to occur is very interesting," he said. Male whale sharks are known to cluster in large groups in the Indian Ocean, prompting scientists to wonder where the females are. The data released yesterday, the first for a whale shark tagged in the region, raises important questions. Mr Khan invited Atlantis to present its data at the Arabian Seas Whale Shark Research Symposium and Workshop, in December at Fujairah's Le Méridien Al Aqah.

In a statement, Atlantis staff said they were "thrilled" that the laboratory could track the shark and share the data. "The early release of tags has been reported by other researchers of whale sharks in other locations," said Steve Kaiser, the vice president of marine science and engineering at the hotel. "Researchers can only guess as to why they detach prematurely." Should they accept the invitation to appear at the December conference, Atlantis staff would be likely to face extensive questions from environmentalists who feel the resort could have been more transparent in how it dealt with the fish.

Dr Christophe Tourenq, the science and research manager at the Emirates Wildlife Society-World Wide Fund for Nature, refused to comment on the findings. One month of data was not enough to determine "normal" swimming behaviour, he said, adding that "the fate of the whale shark is still unknown". "It is regrettable that Atlantis did not inform local organisations involved with marine wildlife, nor the public, of the whale shark's release, or share the satellite tracking number with us so that we could join them in following the whale shark's month-long journey, since this is the first whale shark tracked in the Arabian Gulf," he said.

Adham Sharkawy, a Dubai-based business development manager and one of the most vocal participants on the Free The Palm Atlantis Whale Shark! Facebook page, went further. "I believe the whale shark is dead," he said. "I think this is public relations camouflage." However, Sue Krimeed, one of the founders of the Facebook group, said she was optimistic. "I am hoping for the best, hoping she is in good health and will live."

Whale sharks are listed as vulnerable to extinction in the Red List of Threatened Species. They are free-roaming ocean species and travelling vast distances and performing dives of up to 1,000 metres. @Email:vtodorova@thenational.ae