Whale Shark Research FAQs

What type of photographs can be used?

Identifying Whale Sharks

A properly-oriented photograph of the left-side (primary) patterning is important for computer-aided identification. Right-side (secondary) patterning can also help in identification. In this example, the photographer is perpendicular to the area of patterning (outlined in red) behind the gills.

Any photographs that show the unique spot patterning behind the gills on the left or right sides of a whale shark are valuable for photo-identification. However, our pattern-recognition software requires properly-oriented photos taken perpendicular to this pattern region behind the gills to make computer-assisted matches, which are more accurate and faster to process. The image left shows a properly-oriented pattern photographed from the left side. The same angle on the right side is also valuable. If you can only choose one side to photograph, choose the left side (primary patterning).
Whale Shark Recognition Patterns

Once processed, a properly-oriented photograph becomes a set of x,y spot coordinates used for computer-based pattern recognition.

In addition, photographs of visible scarring, such as nicks and cuts from the fins, can help to suggest or confirm a match between two reported encounters. Keep your eyes open for scarring on the fins, body, or gills. In addition, you may find the remnants of old plastic tags below the dorsal fins on the body. We discourage the use of these plastic tags as they fall off quickly or are easily fouled by algae, yet the wire remnants can remain in the body for several years, possibly as an irritant to the shark.
The cut in this 1st dorsal fin can help with photo-identification.

The cut in this 1st dorsal fin can help with photo-identification.

Notice the notched 1st dorsal fin (useful for identification) and the fouled, unusable plastic tag visible in this image. Computer-assisted photo-identification creates "digital tags" that last longer and are less invasive to the whale shark.

Notice the notched 1st dorsal fin (useful for identification) and the fouled, unusable plastic tag.

How do I report an encounter?

You can report a whale shark encounter here or via the WildMe.org Whale Shark Photo-identification Library. Reporting an encounter at either web site will send your photos and information to a single, global database used by whale shark researchers. It is best to report your encounter as soon after the event as possible while it is still fresh in your mind. Try to write down the GPS coordinates and location description of your encounter in addition to the size and sex of the animal. Don’t worry if you don’t have all of the information. Just send in your photos and whatever information you can gather from your experience, your fellow divers, and the divemasters and boat crew, also do not forget this is not just for encounters in Utila, you can report sightings from anywhere in the world.

Tell all your fellow divers and travelers to report their sightings as well, old photos from any period can also be used and will assist worldwide research.

How is reported data analyzed?

After you have reported a whale shark encounter, you will receive an email confirming your report. Reported data is reviewed by Deep Blue Utila staff and WildMe.org for its quality. Reported encounters that include photos of the left- or right-side spot patterning will be analyzed by pattern-recognition software or matched by eye. If sufficient data exists, the encounter will be allocated as a new, previously unidentified shark in the WildMe.org Library, or it will be matched to a previously identified animal. In either case, a subsequent email will be automatically sent to you informing you of the identification of your shark. If you do not receive an email, your reported whale shark remains unidentified but may be identified in the future as other encounters of it are reported.

Identifying each animal using its natural, unchanging spot patterning allows multi-year “life histories” to be created. These multi-year histories allow for critical population modeling studies to identify trends in the Utila and worldwide whale shark populations. These trends can better inform resource management decisions and help to protect the whale shark worldwide. In addition, these identifications will help in ethological research of the whale shark, and by identifying whale shark behavior over an entire life span, rather than over a single season, we can better understand the complex lives of these elusive animals. By reporting your encounter to a worldwide database, you can be assured that it will feed into broader studies and will have maximum impact in research and conservation efforts.

Click here to learn more about the tools and methods of whale shark research in Utila.

How can I sign up for a trip?

In Utila we run 4 weeks every year in whale shark season especially for people that want to help and be involved with the research.

The trip will include your accommodation at Deep Blue Resort in Utila inclusive with all food and diving plus whale shark trips each day weather permitting, see here for the whole list of items included in the trip see here  What is included

Apart from a great stay there will be a / some researchers from different parts of the world that will spend their time with you, on the boats, having meals, and always there for you to chat to and ask questions, they will also give talks in the evenings.

Contact Steve@DeepBlueUtila.com to sign up for a whale shark research trip! More details here.

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