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Join an award winning project to photograph and log the world’s largest fish – The Whale shark.

Julian Cribb reports.

Before the swimmer's eyes, glowing flecks shine like stars eerily transposed into the depths of the sea. Through a blue-dark veil of water, a huge shape gradually resolves itself, rising slowly and majestically to the surface.

After hundreds of sightings, Brad Norman's blood still thrills as the great, spotted whale shark comes into view, gliding effortlessly forward, its pale, metre-wide mouth agape to scoop up thousands of litres of protein-rich sea water. ‘When they're down deep, they resemble a starfield under water,' he says ‘As you swim above, the shark's body seems to disappear and its white spots light up like stars in the night sky. It's an awe-inspiring sight.'

And it's increasingly a sight that is being shared with thousands of adventurous holidaymakers worldwide, who are taking part in Brad's global project to study and protect whale sharks.

The 38-year-old Australian naturalist has dedicated most of his adult life to the pursuit, identification, understanding and protection of the world's largest fish, Rhincodon typus, the aptly named whale shark. Reaching 18 metres in length, the huge beast resembles nothing so much as ‘a bus under water', Brad says. Yet an animate, placid, occasionally inquisitive bus, pursuing its mysterious life across tens of thousands of kilometres of open ocean.

First recorded in 1828

First recorded in 1828, only 350 whale-sharks were sighted in the ensuing 150 years. Now growth in dive tourism has brought a surge in sightings. Yet the whale shark remains elusive, and the World Conservation Union (IUCN), which engaged Norman to assess the species, assesses it as ‘vulnerable' to extinction. Only a handful of countries protect it.

Brad Norman is determined to find out far more about these fish. His visionary plan involves thousands of ‘citizen scientists' worldwide in the photo-monitoring and conservation of whale sharks, significantly enhancing knowledge of this elusive species. For this he was acclaimed a Laureate in the 2006 Rolex Awards for Enterprise.

Ningaloo Reef
Australia's Ningaloo Reef in WA is one of the premier spots in the world for watching whale sharks, which are also seen along the Great Barrier Reef. Through 2007-08 Brad is using his Rolex Award money to criss-cross the world, to other whale shark sites as far apart as Mexico and Mozambique, the Seychelles, Christmas Island, the Galapagos, the Maldives, Taiwan, Thailand, Indonesia, Kenya, Honduras and Belize, training local marine and tourism managers in how to identify and conserve the giant fish

1000 Individuals Recognised
So far his tourist assistants have helped identify over 1000 individual whale sharks, out of more than 10,000 images submitted to the web site.

The whale shark is one of only three sharks that are filter-feeders, using gill rakers to scoop up krill (shrimp), small fish and other tiny ocean life as its sole source of sustenance. It has never been known to attack humans. Tagged individuals have been tracked for 13,000 kilometres across the Pacific, and 3,000 kilometres in the Indian Ocean. It has an uncanny instinct for locating food concentrations. It is sighted at more than 100 places around the globe yet remains so scarce almost nothing is known of its abundance, breeding habits or habitat preferences.

Hunted for Meat
It has few natural enemies, though orcas and predatory sharks may attack young whale sharks. Now, however, the whale shark is suffering the insatiable human appetite for seafood. Though not particularly good to eat, its flesh, fins and body parts sell in Asian fish markets for $US18 a kilo or more.

Since his first encounter in 1995, in Ningaloo Marine Park, Norman has striven to uncover all he can about this lordly animal, whose ancestry extends back 400 million years. ‘My first encounter seemed quite surreal. There was this huge, living thing coming directly towards me. My eyes were popping out of my head. I almost ‘swallowed my snorkel'. I was screaming silently to myself in excitement,' he recalls. ‘Yet, oddly, I wasn't afraid. I just floated there, too amazed to swim after him.'

After hundreds of encounters, Norman appreciates many aspects of the whale shark. Its economical 3-5 kmh cruising speed is perfect for observation. Though diving as deep as 1,500 metres, it often swims conveniently near the surface. Its placid temperament makes it safe compared with other big sharks. Yet it can also be dynamic: ‘I once observed seven in an area where there was a huge swarm of krill, a real soup of food in the water. They were charging through it, mouths open, thrashing around. That was a big adrenalin rush. I never felt frightened, but I did keep my arms down and made myself small.

‘Even with something as big as a whale shark, you're not afraid - and nor is it. It is a calming experience. You feel at one.' Swimming alongside its head, Norman has seen its little eye turn, observing him - a glimmer of acknowledgement. ‘Maybe it just thinks I'm a big remora [sucker fish],' he laughs. Nonetheless, he respects the shark's brute power, and has assisted in the drafting of guidelines for divers and tour operators worldwide on how to behave around whale sharks.

Norman's love of the ocean was born on the golden beaches of Perth, on Australia's Indian Ocean coastline, where he body-surfed as a youngster. This led to diving and, via a science degree, to a deep interest in marine conservation which he has pursued as a researcher and fisheries management consultant.


The Rolex Awards

  • The Rolex Awards for Enterprise recognise great achievements, encouraging a spirit of enterprise in visionary individuals who advance human knowledge and well-being.
  • The Awards are presented every two years in Science and Medicine, Technology and Innovation, Exploration and Discovery, the Environment and Cultural Heritage. A project may be submitted in almost any field of endeavour provided it contributes to the betterment of humankind and is ongoing. Anyone, of any age, from any country or background, may apply.
  • To apply for a Rolex Award go to: www.rolexawards.com

Pioneering Research
His encounter with the whale sharks of Ningaloo was a life-altering experience. The shark was an unknown, and there was little money for its study or conservation. Norman survived hand-to-mouth on sporadic grants, and funded much research himself. Burning the midnight oil, he mounted national and international campaigns for the whale shark's conservation, emerging as a global expert on the animal and its needs. He helped authorities develop plans for its protection, wrote scientific reports and information for divers and children.

Where do the Females Go?
Many mysteries of the whale shark remain to be solved. While young males gather at Ningaloo, no one knows where the females collect or where the sharks breed. The key to studying their thin, dispersed and cryptic demographics lay in identifying individuals. Following a clue provided by an experienced fisherman, Norman's painstaking research managed to prove that every whale shark has a pattern of white spots on its body as individually distinctive as a human fingerprint. This gave him the idea of using underwater camera images as a practical, non-invasive way to identify individuals.

ECOCEAN Whale Shark Photo-identification Library
Just as big game hunters in Africa have traded rifles for cameras in order to protect and conserve the objects of their hunt, Brad is encouraging fishers to use images to capture whalesharks, rather more lethal instruments. In 1999 he set up the ECOCEAN Whale Shark Photo-identification Library on the Internet, a global project to record sightings and images.

In 2002, a US computer engineer and fellow diver Jason Holmberg offered to help organize and automate the ECOCEAN database. He discussed the photo-ID challenge with a friend, NASA-affiliated astronomer Zaven Arzoumanian, whose colleague Gijs Nelemans pointed out that a technique used by Hubble Space Telescope scientists for mapping star patterns known as the Groth algorithm, could be used to identify whale sharks from the unique patterns of white spots on the shark's hide. It took months of calculations and computer programming to refine the algorithm for use on a living creature - but in the end they gained a breakthrough for biology: a reliable way to identify individuals in virtually any spotted animal population, without tagging or harassing them. More than 800 whale sharks have since been identified from 10,000 images and added to the database.

For survival, whale sharks depend on huge bursts of tiny sea life which, in turn, reflect the condition of the oceans and their bio-productivity. Since they travel thousands of kilometres to collect food, the demographics of these fish can serve as an indicator of ocean health - and of the human impact on it.

Help the Project by Sending Your Photgraphs
This is high, planet-scale science. But at another scale, individual divers and holidaymakers worldwide can now follow Norman's simple guidelines for photographing whale sharks and log their images, activities and locations on the ECOCEAN site. In this way ordinary folk can take part in real science. On ECOCEAN, their photos are automatically catalogued, compared and, if possible, identified as belonging to a known shark. Each new image helps Norman compile a global map of where whale sharks live and their migratory patterns. Contributors receive notice by email of all past and further sightings of ‘their' shark. Together, the images are helping to build a global picture of the abundance, health, range and fluctuations of the whale shark population. ‘Just about anyone with a disposable underwater camera can now play a part in helping to conserve whale sharks, and so help to monitor the health of the oceans,' Norman explains. ‘It gives people a direct stake in whale shark stewardship.'

With the Rolex Award money, Brad Norman is devoting two years full-time to his project, training local authorities, tourism operators and 20 research assistants around the Pacific, Atlantic and Indian oceans to observe, record and protect whale sharks. In this way he is developing the camera as a new tool for ‘fishing' for the dwindling giants of the sea.

Huge Ecotourism Opportunity
He also explains to those who hunt the shark that there is more to be gained by leaving it alive. Ningaloo's whale sharks draw more than 5,000 visitors a year, mainly from April to June, generating ecotourism worth an estimated US$10 million, proving a live whale shark earns far more than a dead one. In the last 12 months, in response to his representations, the Philippines, India and Taiwan - the last countries in the world to officially sanction whale shark hunting - have all agreed to end the slaughter.

‘The whale shark is worth saving - and we can do something about it,' Brad says. ‘It is a big, beautiful and charismatic animal, and not dangerous. It is a perfect flagship for the health of the oceans.'