"Maximize Results, Minimize Interference"
The Utila Whale Shark Research Project uses "best practice" methods and cutting-edge tools to conduct its work in a safe and scientifically valuable manner.
Protection of our sharks and our divers is our highest priority.
Steven Fox of Deep Blue Utila leads the local research efforts.
With a primary focus on photo-identification, our project permits our researchers, our divers, and our boats to maintain a safe and non-invasive distance from our sharks and from other boats and divers while collecting valuable data. This approach minimizes the risk of "trap response" and allows for longer in-water encounters with our whale sharks. In addition, enforcing a safe interaction distance protects the local dive tourism industry and the value of each whale shark to it. Physical contact with our sharks is not permitted, and our divers are not allowed within three meters of any shark.
Good science requires consistent data collection, qualified analysts, and peer review.
With the assistance of ECOCEAN in training material development and local workshops, our staff and divers are methodically collecting photographs and using ECOCEAN software to identify each of the whale sharks that visit Utila. These photographs and the data collected with them (size, location, sex, etc.) are the basic units of mark-recapture needed to model and better understand the population dynamics of our whale sharks. Our data is collected systematically season after season and made available to the researchers participating in the ECOCEAN Library. With their help, we will publish the results of our five-year study at periodic intervals in peer-reviewed scientific journals.
The emphasis of our project is on photo-identification, and our staff and visiting divers are trained in proper data collection techniques, including how to photograph a whale shark for computer-aided identification. All data collected in our project is entered into the ECOCEAN Whale Shark Photo-identification Library. By promptly adding our data to the ECOCEAN Library, we emphasize transparency in our work and are ensuring that:
- Collected data is visible to researchers worldwide as well as to local conservation efforts in Utila.
- Data is collected in a manner consistent with other whale shark research projects, such as at Ningaloo Reef in Western Australia. By collecting data in an identical manner, our research can feed into global studies and international efforts toward whale shark conservation.
- Participants in our research remain connected to their whale sharks and are informed of our progress through the automated email system of the ECOCEAN Library. By submitting photographs, divers in our project can receive an email if their shark is identified and each time it is subsequently sighted.
In the final three seasons of our research (2007-2009) we will also incorporate acoustic tagging of identified sharks into our research. Using the baseline of sharks from previous seasons (2005-2006), we will seek to answer questions such as:
- Do male and female whale sharks travel the same routes to and from Utila?
- Do our sharks travel one or multiple migration routes over the course of their lives?
- Are our whale sharks closely related to other known populations?
Periodically throughout each year, our data is audited by ECOCEAN to ensure its quality, and yearly workshops in Utila ensure that the latest tools are available to us.