Discovering Where & How Endangered Whale Sharks Mate

Latest update February 7, 2019 Started on February 7, 2019
sea

Scientists believe that St Helena could be the only place in the world where mature whale sharks aggregate to breed. We hope to capture this on film and incorporate this data into future management decisions within the island's vast MPA.

February 7, 2019
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In The Field

Following a fantastic trip with scientists from Georgia Aquarium, Okinawa Churashima Foundation and Marine Megafauna Foundation, we accumulated 175 encounters from 74.8 hours on the water.


From these encounters the team gathered 78 microbiome swabs, put out 15 acoustic tags, 4 miniPAT tags, 3 deep tags (like the one in the photograph), 1 SPLASH tag and collected an opportunistic fecal sample.

These brand new deep tags, designed by Dr. Al Dove (Georgia Aquarium) and developed by Thomas Maughan (Monterey Bay Aquarium Research Institute) have a crush limit of a whopping 6,000m and will be able to help us answer how deep whale sharks can dive as well as explore habitat usage around St Helena and in the surrounding waters.

PhD Student, Cameron Perry, will be able to use the swabs to categorize the microbial community of whale sharks in St Helena and can use this a proxy for comparing health with sharks elsewhere in the world.

Dr. Rui Matsumoto and Kiyomi Murakumo (Okinawa Churashima Foundation) were able to successfully get numerous blood draws and ultrasound scans. The blood can help us learn more about the health and reproductive status of the sharks we encountered. The ultrasounds can provide pregnancy status and vital information about the structure and health of internal organs.

We conducted 10 acoustic receiver dives yielding 1070 detections of 28 individuals.

On top of all the science we were able to communicate our research through numerous radio appearances, public talks and hosting the first annual St Helena Whale Shark Festival.

All research conducted under permit number 2019/SRE-01.

All images (C) Dr. Simon J Pierce: https://www.simonjpierce.com

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Hello Beth, how do the sharks usually react to your tests? I know some to be fairly patient animals, but is it the case for you and your study?
Expedition Background

For years scientists have wondered where and how the endangered whale shark (Rhincodon typus) breeds.


St Helena represents a unique opportunity to study a population of whale sharks which is comprised equally of mature males and females. There are also reliable anecdotal accounts of breeding behaviour from members of the Saint community.

For the past five years Georgia Aquarium, Ocean Conservancy and The St Helena Government's Marine Section have been conducting research on these gentle giants. In February 2018, we joined these research efforts in addition to working closely with local fishermen and tour operators to ascertain potential mating grounds.

We are using an innovative combination of technologies including: ROVs to explore aggregation sites too deep for SCUBA divers, aerial drones to survey further offshore than ever before and deep-hardened satellite tags with crush limits of 6,000m to survey deeper than ever before.

We are also developing the island's first 360 VR underwater films to disseminate our research and to foster a greater connection to the ocean within the local community.

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