Shark trail

They can be up to 40 feet long and , weigh 36 tonnes, and love the warm waters off the coast of Fujairah and Oman - but don’t worry - unlike their Sharm el-Sheikh cousins, whale sharks are completely harmless explainsas scientist David Robinson explained when we spoke about his local conservation project



By David Light (david@khaleejtimes.com)

Published: Mon 13 Dec 2010, 12:01 PM

Last updated: Mon 6 Apr 2015, 12:15 PM

IN VIETNAMESE CULTURE they are regarded as a deity and along the Eastern coast of Africa sightings of the creature are regarded as lucky as a result of the distinctive pattern on their skin resembling shilling coins. Whale sharks maybe the largest living fish species, but surprisingly we know very little about them. So far research has been scarce the world over, which is one of the reasons why David Robinson, chief scientist for the Sharkwatch Arabia project, a post-graduate study in association with Heriot-Watt University, Edinburgh and part of The Shark Project Oman based at Sultan Qaboos University, is dedicating the next five years to researching their habits in local waters.

Splitting his time between the east coast waters and Musandam, Oman, David hopes to tag and study 25 whale sharks in 60 months.

“The goal of the project is to get some baseline data because nothing has ever been done,” David said. “This data can then be processed and if governments need information about whale sharks for protection status then ours will be there for use.”

In order to study the fish David and his team must get in the water with the shark and place a tag upon it.

“The sharks are completely safe and even interact with divers,” he said. “If they get a bit shy they will just dive away quickly.”

The tag will stay on the shark for four months, where it will then detach itself and float to the surface wherever it may be. It will go on to transmit all the data it has collected in 120 days by beaming it to a satellite, which then sends it back to David and his team. The data will include elements such as information on water temperatures, durations of dives and depths of dives, all essential tools in understanding a whale shark’s behaviour, why they are here and how they utilise the waters.

“The most difficult thing is finding the whale sharks in the first-place,” David revealed. “We rely on local divers to report them and then go and hang out at the sites where they have been spotted.”

In a unique initiative, each of the 25 tags is going to be sponsored by a locally based, socially conscious company. At the cost of Dhs15,000 per tag it is a generous example of how corporate social responsibility can make a real difference.

The latest organisation to undertake the project is Le Meridien Al Aqah Beach Resort. Patrick Antaki, general manager of Le Méridien, stated “The personal gratification I get from being a part of Sharkwatch Arabia is as important as the CSR involvement of the resort in this continued quest for environmental understanding and protection. Additionally, the conscious support of our team members who are avid divers that support the cause and voluntarily contribute to similar activities is commendable. We wish the dive teams all success in the tagging programme.”

So far David has spotted around 55 whale sharks in the region. He intoned the abundance of plankton, tiny organisms found in the water that provide the whale shark’s nourishment, especially around Musandam, could be the reason. In the coming months David hopes to set up a plankton protocol in the area to find out if this theory is correct and discover why sightings there are so prevalent.

“There are many more sharks than the ones we are seeing. We get most of our calls on Fridays and Saturdays, because that is when people are diving. There must be more on other days, but nobody is in the water during the week to spot them.”

“We’ve got two tags on sharks at the moment and are looking forward to getting the data back. Are they staying in the Gulf, are they moving out? It’s exciting waiting to find out.”

The whale shark is the largest known fish. They are listed as vulnerable to extinction partly due to the increased demand for shark products in the Asian markets. The Sharkwatch Arabia project will make a valuable contribution to provide key insights into the ecology of the species and assist in providing necessary steps for their conservation.

If wish to get involved or find out more about Sharkwatch Arabia visit www.sharkwatcharabia.com


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