The Maldives Whale Shark Research Programme (MWSRP) is a research-based conservation charity dedicated to studying the whale shark and fostering community-focused conservation initiatives in the Maldives and the greater Indian Ocean. What initially began as a scientific expedition in 2006, the MWSRP has grown to become the only long-term organisation dedicated to study the iconic, yet vulnerable whale shark species in the Maldives.
Here we have a few questions and answers with CLARA and CHLOE from MWSRP.
1. Could you give us a brief history on MWSRP Maldives and how it came to be?
The MWSRP started out as a standalone research expedition in 2006. This Expedition was funded by the Royal Geographical Society. The team went back the following year to gather more data and we’ve been there in one capacity or another every year since.
2. How many whale sharks have been spotted in the Maldives? Out of these, are there many repeat customers?
There are 647 whale sharks in the database. 301 of those individuals have been re-sighted at least twice.
3. What makes whale sharks in the Maldives unique?
Across the world there are approximately 20 known whale shark hotspots with a vast majority of them being seasonal aggregations. South Ari Atoll in the Maldives is one of a few aggregation sites where whale sharks can be encountered year-round. Additionally it has one of the highest re-sighting rates in the world.
4. Why is there such a high concentration of whale sharks in South Ari Atoll? What makes South Ari special?
In the programme’s 15 years of research MWSRP have come to believe that the predominantly juvenile male whale shark individuals are using the area of SAMPA as a secondary nursery. More specifically, we found that this unique Maldives aggregation consists of 91% male individuals with a calculated maturity age of 25 years and longevity of around 130 years. We have also found this ‘staging ground’ for juvenile sharks.
Most of the coastal whale shark aggregations take place in shallow waters with close steep slopes and deep waters in their proximity. Studies show that whale sharks could be feeding in deeper waters and that whale sharks would then surface in shallower and warmer waters, to thermoregulate and recover from their deep dives. Steep slopes favour upwelling currents and we have depths of over 1000 m outside SAMPA. Whale sharks descend to at least 1982 metres.
5. What is the most sustainable way in which we can encounter whale sharks?
Most importantly, do not touch the shark. Sharks are not a tactile species and will most likely leave the encounter if you do touch it.
Keep a distance of 3 metres from the body and 4 metres from the caudal fin. If you are too close to the shark it may perceive you as a threat and leave the encounter. Putting a good distance between yourself and the shark gives it room to leave and change direction freely.
Do not obstruct the shark. Swimming in front of the shark may be tempting to get your photo of that big mouth, however this can cause the shark to become evasive and leave the encounter. When entering the water, we recommend doing it at a fair distance of around 20 metres from the shark to avoid disturbance or injury from the boat to the shark. Enter the water from a seated position to reduce noise and when in the water keep noise to a minimum. Whale sharks have the biggest eardrum in the animal kingdom so they are bound to be sensitive to noisy commotion!
6. What are examples of steps that a tourist or a whale shark enthusiast can take to contribute to the conservation of whale sharks in the wild?
As well as upholding whale shark code of conduct in the water, scuba divers and snorkelers can also directly contribute to conservation of whale sharks simply by sending their encounter photographs to be uploaded to their online database the Big Fish Network. Photo-identification forms the backbone of our database for whale sharks all around the Maldives, as every individual has its own unique spot pattern allowing us to track movements and overall health of the individuals. Photo ID also lends itself brilliantly to our research, along with many other wildlife studies, due to its non-invasive nature and citizen science friendly quality. Much of our data now comes from citizen scientists and local contributors ranging from liveaboards, resort excursions and guesthouses; and without their wonderful assistance our register of whale sharks
7. How do whale sharks contribute to the marine ecosystem? What is their main role?
Maintain plankton populations by eating it.
Fertilise phytoplankton by bringing nutrition from the deep waters up to the surface where they disperse it as poo.
A large animal and a natural carbon sink meaning that they can help fight climate change by storing carbon in their bodies. They are so big that they are a natural fish aggregating device (F.A.D) which offers protection for smaller species of fish.
Whale sharks indicator species meaning that if whale sharks are abundant, the area they inhabit is a productive habitat overall. They are an umbrella species meaning that by achieving MPA based protection for the whale shark (a naturally charismatic shark that people want to swim with), protection is also achieved for the other smaller but important species living within that habitat.
8. A personal question, what was your most memorable whale shark encounter?
Chloe: One of my most memorable encounters happened just last week! We were treated to an inquisitive whale shark who followed us around and around for close to half an hour! This individual is new to our database, and perhaps new to the area and this behaviour can be typical of smaller individuals. While we were in this encounter, another individual came up next to it. Earlier that day we also saw two individuals interacting at a depth which is very special behaviour to witness. Whale sharks are solitary animals so when we see them take interest in one another this is very scientifically intriguing. At this moment in time whale shark scientists do not know what they are communicating to each other.
Clara: my most memorable encounters are generally the unexpected encounters when you are just snorkelling along the reef and you happen to see a shark cruising along. I had an encounter with Shaiban recently and it was just two of us in the water. We were there taking photographs of table corals and suddenly who showed up? Shaiban, WS337!
9. What are some of the dangers that whale sharks are facing in the Maldives and globally?
- Targeted fishing and finning
- Vessel collision
- Habitat destruction and climate change
Unfortunately, whale sharks in the Maldives are no stranger to anthropogenic injuries, largely due to the fact that they dwell near the surface to thermoregulate their bodies and, to a lesser extent, to feed.
Vessel strike: meaning injuries caused by boats. South Ari is an area of high tourism activity so the waters are often very busy which can pose a threat to the whale sharks and other surface dwelling marine life. While we cannot say for sure whether whale sharks in SAMPA sustain their injuries inside or outside of SAMPA, our recent findings of a rise in anthropogenic injuries coincides with a rise in tourism within the area and also a decrease in whale shark sightings.
Human disturbance: human disturbance can threaten the whale shark by ultimately impacting its overall health and likely causing an increase in stress levels.
10. Who is your favourite fehurihi? (If you have favourites)
Chloe: My favourite individual is possibly WS183 Kokko, he was one of the first sharks I ever encountered and it was incredibly special as he was so curious. Another favourite is Mendhan WS382 who has a very distinctive spot pattern, one which I know at first sight. It is a wonderful thing to be able to recognise individuals and see their growth and development.
Clara: I have two favourite whale shark individuals Zindhagee and Shaibhan. Zindhagee is the whale shark with the most amputations. Despite his injuries he has managed to stay strong and survive the boat strikes. Unfortunately I have never seen it in my life. He likes to spend time in Baa atoll and I am mostly based in South Ari atoll although he has sometimes been encountered in South Ari. Shaiban was named after our boat captain's grandson, Shaiban is like a little brother to me! This shark has also been severely injured; it has only been sighted in South Ari atoll and has been one of the most seen sharks during the last few years.