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whale shark

Whale sharks are drawn to Ningaloo Reef in autumn when they feed on dense swarms of krill. Credit: crisod/iStockphoto

By Mark Meekan

Whale sharks may be the largest fish in the ocean but they are particularly elusive. Researchers are now using photographic and genetic methods to find out their migration patterns and determine the best conservation strategies to protect them from threats posed by shipping accidents and unregulated fishing.

The full text of this article can be purchased from Informit.

Whale sharks were first described in 1828 after one was harpooned in Table Bay, South Africa. Fortunately for whale sharks, such lethal interactions with humans proved to be very rare events, and in the following 150 years only a few hundred of these sharks were ever sighted.

Just how difficult it was to find these animals in the open ocean is shown by the fact that the pioneering diver, Jacques Cousteau, only ever encountered two of these sharks in a lifetime spent at sea. Then in the mid-1980s, Geoff Taylor, a doctor who spent his free time exploring Ningaloo Reef in Western Australia, made a remarkable discovery – every year from around March to May the waters just off the reef played host to aggregations of whale sharks.

Taylor’s observations began a revolution in both our attitudes and knowledge of these animals. For the first time researchers could predictably access and observe whale sharks, gaining an insight into the behaviour and ecology of a species that otherwise leads a cryptic life somewhere in the open ocean far from the coast.

Since the pioneering work by Geoff Taylor, aggregations of whale sharks have now been discovered at locations spanning tropical and warm-temperate oceans worldwide, from the coast of east Africa to the Seychelles and the Maldives, off the coast of South-East Asia, in the Philippines, along the Pacific coast of...

The full text of this article can be purchased from Informit.