UTILA, Honduras -- In the aftermath of another Whale Shark death at Georgia Aquarium, here is a group of researchers that are using ground breaking technology to achieve real research results with out the aid of financial backing from large companies, and are getting results in the wild.
Scientists have suspected for years that whale sharks (Rhindcodon typus) travel from the island of Utila, Honduras up through the waters of Belize to Mexico as part of a long, annual migration, but no individual whale shark has ever been cooperatively tracked by researchers in each country. Different research teams may see the same individuals along the route year after year, but never before has a team of scientists “connected the dots” on this spotted animal to track them between a series of different research stations. In 2007, broad cooperative efforts between researchers and ecotourists in the three countries are producing a more detailed picture of the behavior of these rare and “gentle giants”.
Tracking whale sharks isn’t easy. Traditional satellite and archival tags are expensive and have a very high failure rate that may be the result of the great depths that whale sharks can regularly dive to. These tags also generate data over only a few months, which is insufficient to create the long-term histories needed to model this population. To overcome these barriers, biologists and resort owners in Honduras, Belize, and Mexico have begun working within the ECOCEAN Whale Shark Photo-identification Library to coordinate data collection and to use its NASA-inspired software to analyze photographs collected from tourists and research staff and to identify individual whale sharks based on their natural spot patterning. The results of their efforts proved to be immediately fruitful.
Two whale sharks have recently been linked between all three research stations, an unprecedented achievement in whale shark research. Shark BZ-001 has been logged twelve times since 2002 and was recorded in all three locations in 2007. Shark MXA-008 has also been sighted at each station a total of seven times since 2004. Several other sharks have been directly linked between Utila, Honduras and the Gladden Spit Marine Reserve, Belize over the past three years, and the inclusion of Mexico in the 2007 research will no doubt create more matches. These results represent the first cooperative, multi-national, and multi-year effort to track whale sharks over their long migration routes and to share collected data.
The roots of this cooperative effort began three years ago with two resorts in Utila, Deep Blue Utila and the Utila Lodge , leading independent whale shark research programs. Steve Fox and Jasmine Dale, of Deep Blue joined the ECOCEAN Library in 2005 and began contributing data collected by tourists and visiting researchers to a global database of whale shark information. Subsequent conferences and face-to-face meetings at Deep Blue Utila not only united the resorts in their efforts, adding Dale Forbes and his many years of data from Utila Lodge to the work, but also introduced members of the regional research community, such as Lisa Carne of Belize, to the potential for better science through cooperation. In 2007, Rafael de la Parra from Mexico’s Domino Project joined, contributing data that linked photos from all three countries to individual whale sharks migrating through their waters.
Many more discoveries are expected as this “brain trust” of resort owners, divers, conservationists, and marine biologists unite to study these rare and beautiful sharks. Because whale sharks are currently listed as “Vulnerable to Extinction” by the IUCN , this fresh approach to cooperative conservation and science may be just what this migratory animal needs to protect it along its annual journeys in the Caribbean.
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