Photograph by Colin Parker
Photograph courtesy Rolex Awards/Kurt Amsler
Your vacation photos could help save a species. Using underwater snapshots taken around the world of massive whale sharks, Brad Norman and his team of marine conservationists are piecing together the puzzle of how to monitor and protect this highly elusive, migratory, and threatened giant of the deep. And they're doing it with technology that may revolutionize the future of animal identification.
Every whale shark has a unique pattern of lines and spots on its skin. Like a fingerprint, no two patterns are precisely the same. A photograph can document the pattern, acting as a visual tag that allows scientists to record, recognize, and track each individual. But to compare thousands of almost identical images, Norman's team had to make a leap from the depths of the ocean to stars high in the night sky.
"We found a way to modify an algorithm developed by NASA to recognize star patterns, and apply it to match spot patterns on whale sharks," Norman explains. "We could never accurately analyze huge numbers of images with our eyes alone, so this tool is crucial."
Along with thousands of photos taken by Norman, thousands more have been submitted by the general public. The entire visual database is gathered on Norman's ECOCEAN Internet library. "As a scientist, I can only be in one location at any given time," Norman says. "But by empowering citizens around the world through this project, we can collect the data that is so important in creating policies to protect and preserve this species."
"You don't have to be a professional underwater photographer to take a picture and upload it on our site. We've made it easy," says Norman. Anyone who submits an image to ECOCEAN will receive an email update letting them know when and where that particular shark is seen again. "It reminds people that they've played an important role in conservation," Norman says. "Their photos haven't gone into a black hole."
The pattern recognition algorithms and database capabilities of ECOCEAN are expected to be highly applicable to other species. Although focused on Ningaloo Marine Park in Western Australia, Norman's team has received global interest from researchers working with more than 30 different species, including manta rays, whales, dolphins, turtles, African wild dogs, lions, cheetahs, and giraffes.
But for the whale shark, much is still unknown. The species was not discovered until 1828, and by the 1980s only about 300 sightings had been confirmed. "When I realized how much mystery surrounds this species and how many key questions remain unanswered, it sparked my interest tremendously," Norman says. "I continue to be in awe every time I jump in the water and swim with these beautiful, magnificent creatures that have evolved so perfectly for their domain. They are the biggest fish in the ocean—the size of a large bus—yet one of the most gentle. Their ancestry dates back to the Jurassic time, so they're something of a dinosaur of the deep."
It's easy to see why locating and observing the gentle giants is such a challenge. Whale sharks travel thousands of miles each year, dive to tremendous depths beyond 4,920 feet, and can stay at the bottom of the ocean for months at a time. Nevertheless, according to Norman, tracking is essential. "By documenting the species' movements and preferred areas we'll be in a far better position to argue for its protection," he says.
"I consider the whale shark an icon species, a flagship for the marine environment in general. Although vulnerable to extinction right now, as we begin to identify and protect its critical habitats I believe we can win the battle and ensure the future conservation of the largest fish in the sea."
Cameras for the ECOCEAN Whale Shark Project are provided by Olympus Imaging America Inc.
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Diver Brad Norman snaps pictures of a massive whale shark off the coast of Western Australia in this undated handout released on Thursday.
This is the fifth story in a continuing series on the Megafishes Project. Join National Geographic News on the trail with project leader Zeb Hogan as he tracks down the world's largest fishes.
In Their Words
I consider the whale shark an icon species, a flagship for the marine environment in general.
Researchers in Australia deploy the National Geographic Crittercam on whale sharks to see if tourists swimming with the sharks are affecting their behavior.
The ECOCEAN Whale Shark Photo-identification Library is a visual database of whale shark encounters and of individually catalogued whale sharks.
Hear an interview with Brad on National Geographic Weekend.
00:07:59 Brad Norman
Some go swimming with dolphins or stingrays, Brad Norman, National Geographic Emerging Explorer and marine conservationist, talks about swimming with the largest fish in the world: the whale shark. Norman speaks with Boyd about his research concerning whale shark habitats, tracking and conservation.
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