Whale Sharks

Reporter: Graeme Butler

Mark Meekan says "its' like swimming with a dinosaur effectively you are swimming with a dinosaur an animal that's been unchanged for millions of years" Brad Norman says "i jumped into the water not knowing exactly what to expect and out of the blue this massive creature just came forward" This is the biggest fish in the ocean up to 18 metres long - scientists call it Rhincodon typus - the thousands of people who swim with them each year call them breathtaking. Mark says "whale sharks turn up at Ningaloo every year from about March through to the end of july now where they go after that is a big question"

To try and answer some of the questions scientists like Dr Mark Meekan from the Australian Institute of Marine Science have been attaching tracking devices and cameras to the whale sharks they've revealled some startling facts and remarkable vision...we join the research team at Ningaloo reef some friendly locals lead the way ahead - up above a spotter plane calls in the location of the whale sharks.

"When they've seen a whale shark they direct the boat with the radio and stuff direct the boat over the shark and we get within sight of the shark and at that point everyone gears up we get the tages ready jump into the water and hopefully tag the shark"

The waters of Ningaloo are rich in life.. - a white tip reef shark eyes the divers before moving back into the blue.. but soon the whale shark emerges and the race is on to attach the tracking tag -"we jump in with the tags we attach them below the dorsal fin of the animal we take photos of the shark we take a genetic skin sample for the genetics and other information as well and basically pile back onto the boat"

This tag now records data about the whale shark's movements.. it tracks it's location - water depth and water temperature. What scientists have discovered is both exciting and puzzling. Mark says "they seem to head out in three different directions one lot goes up towards Timor and into south east asia anohter lot heads straight up toweard indonesia and a third heads out into the open ocean quite a way" and that's where the whale sharks run into trouble - as they leave the protected waters of Ningaloo and travel further afield the danger increases. Ship strikes are believed common and in some areas the gentle giants are hunted. This gruesome scene is of a whale shark caught off the coast of china... but its happening closer to home.. this fin was photographed in a Bali marketplace.

Mark says "if you go to the markets in Bali you can on regular occaision find bits of whale shark fins that a problem. It's not a huge fishery it's no an industrial scale fishery it's not industrial sized boats going out it's happening on a village level."

"The data is lacking in actually being about to show there's is a significant threat from south east asia but to be honest we don't want any whale sharks killed cost there is not a lot of them around the indian ocean" Brad Norman heads research group Ecocean - he's been studying whale sharks for 15 years... his belief is the future for the sharks lies largely in eco-tourism. "Trying to encourage eco-tourism as an economic as well as ecologically sustainable alternative to hunding and in fact this is something that i promote quite aq bit when i go overseas"

Brad also promotes a remarkable research project involving everyone who swims with whale sharks around the world. The pattern on the back of each shark in unique.. a finger print of sorts. By collecting photographs of the sharks.. a global database is emerging. "We adapted a programme that NASA uses to map stars in the night sky, like finger print matches, to map spots on the shark but htis provides us with the opportunity to engage thousands of members of the public people that are going out swimming with whale sharks take a photo go to whale shark.org and they can help us with the research"

Cameras are also revealling the secret lives of whale sharks - mark meekan has attached - " Shark Cams " to the back of the creatures. it's like riding the back of the giants through the water. "A shark just aint a shark. A shark is an actual mobile home for so many other species"

Watch the school of bait fish swirl around the whale shark - like it's a floating reef... suddenly a feeding frenzy errupts - a school of Travelly move in darting around the whale shark - gorging on the bait fish... images like these together with the tracking data is painting a more accurate picture of the life of whale sharks. Scientists have discovered the average size of the sharks at ningaloo has reduced -"it's possible that those bigger sharks because they're out thre longer are subject to things like ship strike or harvest by people in near-by countries or it's possible that maybe there's lots of small sharks entering the population, we're having a baby boom"

Collecting the data is a costly and often troublesome job.. the tags can act as a lure for hungry sharks... and get bitten off or come lose. "So where did this end up? it washed up on a beach in West Timor and i could see where it washed up. I could also see that an indonesian man had picked it up he was out searching for turtle eggs and taken it home because i could see his house on google earch and essentially the tag showed me exactly where he was"

It showed the exact village and house where the tag ended up. Mark sent a researcher to find it, "sent him to the house nad knock on the door and basically ask for the tag back"

The tag - like the others helped fill in a tiny piece of a very big and growing puzzle - the only sure thing is this threatened species needs our help. "Individual people can actually do actions that matter..it's one of the best experiences you can do"

For more info visit

www.whaleshark.org