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Whale Sharks Thrive in Western Australia

Thanks to a very successful ecotourism program whale sharks – the world’s largest fish – are positively thriving in WA’s Ningaloo Reef, reports Ecological Applications Journal.

Scientists are able to identify the whale shark’s ‘fingerprints’, or the unique white lines and spots on the flanks of the shark, through pattern recognition software developed by Australian marine scientist Brad Norman, computer programmer Jason Holmberg and astronomer Zaven Arzoumanian.

The software, which was adapted from software originally designed for the Hubble space telescope, has allowed the researchers to keep track of individual sharks since 1995 and has helped determine which sharks return to the reef every year.

The study was based on 5100 underwater images of the whale sharks and revealed numbers returning to the area increased ten-fold since the last study with around two-thirds of the sharks being repeat visitors.

“Applying these guidelines to other locations along whale shark migration routes may offer a viable alternative to hunting these fish, one that yields both economic and conservation benefits,” says Norman.

Listed as a rare species, whale sharks are non-predatory fish eating only tiny zooplankton. They can grow up to 20 metres in length and weigh up to 20 tonnes.