hale sharks are born with a unique patternof spots on their bodies that, like ngerprints,do not change over time. This “bodyprint” can beused, along with information on scars, sex and size,to identify individual whale sharks.This ability to identify individual whale sharks led tothe development, in 1995, of a whale shark photo-ID library at Western Australia’s Ningaloo MarinePark, one of the world’s whale shark hotspots. Atthe time, researchers identied individual sharks byexamining dot patterns and other identifying
characteristics by eye—a time-consuming task.
Marine biology meets the space age
By adapting a computer algorithm originally developed by astronomers to mapstar patterns in images of the night sky, accurate computer matching is nowpossible. The software maps individual spot patterns and compares them withother whale shark patterns already in the photo library.The result is the Interactive Individual Identication System (I3S), which has helpedresearchers identify over 100 individual whale sharks in the Maldives and morethan 1500 whale sharks around the world.
“Virtual” tagging: better than the real thing
The I3S pattern-matching software means a shark can be “virtually tagged” sim
ply by taking a photo. Unlike physical tagging, there is no physical contact withthe animal, leaving it unharmed. And, considering the high cost and short lifespanof plastic shark tags (typically less than one year), and the great distances whalesharks are known to travel, virtual tagging is far more useful for long-term, globalpopulation monitoring.
Click, you’re a whale shark research assistant
Submitting photos and information about your whale shark encounters helpsresearchers understand the movements and overall numbers of whale sharksaround the world. The results can be used by conservation authorities to under
stand the pressures on whale sharksand to take action to protect them.You can help by simply taking a photoof a whale shark’s unique skin pattern,or “bodyprint,” in the area directlybehind the gills and above the pec
toral ns. If possible, try to get three or four shots of the patterning.Both photos and frame grabs fromvideo can be used for identication.
Left-side spot patterning
is the most
important type of identifying photo.You will get the best photos by beingperpendicular to the spot patterningarea above the left pectoral n.
Whale Shark Photo Identifcation
Dierent photos of the same whale shark showingmatching spot paerns.Target area (behind the gills, above the pectoral n).Posion yourself perpendicular to this area for theperfect whale shark mug shot.