Whale sharks call Ningaloo Marine Park home all year

October 11, 2017

Ningaloo Reef: New research finds whale sharks are present all year round. Pic Indian Ocean Imagery

New research at Murdoch University has shown whale sharks are permanent residents at Ningaloo Reef.

Dr Brad Norman and a team of Murdoch University researchers from the School of Veterinary and Life Sciences monitored whale sharks with acoustic transmitters, and detected their presence at Ningaloo Reef all year round, with many staying close to the reef edge.

Until recently, knowledge of whale shark movements at Ningaloo Reef outside the tourist season has been limited to occasional sightings from citizen scientists recorded in the Wildbook for Whale Sharks photo-identification library.

The whale shark ecotourism industry typically operates at the Ningaloo Marine Park between March and August each year when the numbers of these giant fish peak.  However Dr Norman’s research, which doesn’t rely on direct observation, has produced a more accurate picture of whale shark behaviour at Ningaloo Reef and may provide visitors with greater opportunity to swim with whale sharks.

The researchers fitted electronic tags to 21 whale sharks – 20 of which were juvenile males – and  monitored their movements through acoustic receivers within the Australian Animal Tracking and Monitoring System (AATAMS) and Ningaloo Reef Ecosystem Tracking Array (NRETA).

The receivers are located at the northern, central and southern ends of the reef, Mangrove Bay, Turquoise Bay and the 23rd parallel.

The sharks were monitored for periods of between 2 and 339 days from September 2011 to July 2013. Findings showed that some of the whale sharks move outside the reef for extended periods of time, with one absent for 65 days between visits and another away for 48 days.

Dr Norman said the results from this study present implications for the long-term conservation and management of this endangered species in the area, in particular if the associated ecotourism industry extends the period of operation in line with these new findings.

“Ultimately it would be up to the tourism industry and the management agency whether they extend the season throughout the year, and would depend on tourist demand for the experience,” he said.

“The industry is well-managed and appears sustainable at present. While there is no indication that this would change with an extended tourism season, further research on whale shark behaviour is crucial to understand the effects.

“Importantly, we believe these results, combined with those from a recent associated satellite tracking study, indicate that Ningaloo is a 'critical habitat' for this endangered species all year round," Dr Norman said.

The paper has been published at the Journal of Fish Biology.





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