Saturday, February 29

Whale shark sighting highlights importance of divers in marine conservation

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Whale shark front Sulu Sea.

KOTA KINABALU: A whale shark sighted at Pulau Sipadan has showcased the unique role that divers can play in marine conservation.

Footage taken of the shark by divers linked it to an initial sighting in Oslob, some 800 km away in the Philippines – highlighting the long-distance movement of whale sharks in the Sulu-Sulawesi region.

Citizen science programmes around the world have been collecting data on whale sharks for years.

Divers are actively documenting individuals on the online global database ‘Wildbook for Whale Sharks’ and the approach is paying dividends.

This is the first documented movement of a whale shark between Philippines and Malaysia using citizen science.

One intriguing ‘visitor’ to Sipadan in late 2019 was unusual – as the whale shark had previously been sighted in the south of Cebu, Philippines, a minimum distance movement of 800km.

The sighting builds on current knowledge that whale sharks are moving between the Sulu and Sulawesi Seas.

The event was recently published in a scientific paper in the Journal of Fish Biology.

“Whale sharks are at the top of many divers’ wish lists – understandably so, as it is the largest fish in the ocean, yet one threatened with extinction and increasingly rare to see,” said David McCann, Conservation Manager for S.E.A.S (Sea Education Awareness Sabah), based at the dive operator Scuba Junkie’s Mabul Beach Resort.

“We have been sending identification images of whale sharks for years to add to the Wildbook database, but a confirmation like this was remarkable to hear about.”

The whale shark was sighted on 28th October 2019 along the shallow reef of the world-famous Barracuda Point.

Local professional videographer, Abdul R. Ismail, was there to capture the divers’ excitement and joy at the appearance.

Abdul R. Ismail has been diving at Sipadan for many, many years, and has seen whale sharks many times before.

This time he was fortunate to capture not only the excited reactions of his guests, but also clear shots of the whale shark as it swam.

Abdul R. Ismail, Chair of the Semporna Professional Divers Association, shared the video online through his videography company, Underwater Illusions.

Through the video, the authors of the paper were able to positively identify the whale shark by the unique spot pattern displayed on the left-hand side of the shark, beside the gills – and confirm that the individual had been sighted before, far away in the Philippines.

The video was picked up by S.E.A.S, who alerted Dr. Mabel Manjaji Matsumoto (Universiti Malaysia Sabah (UMS)) and Gonzalo Araujo, an Associate Research Fellow at UMS and Executive Director of Large Marine Vertebrates Research Institute (LAMAVE) – based in the Philippines.

Gonzo Araujo enthused, “these results highlight the need for the public to be involved in monitoring programmes particularly for endangered and enigmatic species such as the whale shark.

In the Philippines, citizen science contributions are high with year-round reports from all over the country – a fascinating phenomenon.”

“It would be fantastic for more photos and videos such as this one to enable more documentation of whale sharks in Sabah, an area of special conservation interest.”      Mabel agreed, “the area of the Sulu and Sulawesi Seas is located within the Coral Triangle – a remarkable seascape, with some of the world’s highest marine biodiversity.

Whale sharks are protected by law in Malaysia.

However, cooperation and assistance are needed to help enforce the law and assist research, due to the length of the Sabah’s coastline.

The public can assist through posting photos and footage of these gentle marine giants on social media.

Scientists can then use these as evidence or validation of the presence of the species.

It would be absolutely incredible to have more information about the individuals encountered here in Sabah.”

Araujo urged responsible interactions in doing so, “while it is important that we get more sighting data, it is more important that when doing so we do not stress or harm the animal itself.

Divers should adhere to a Code of Conduct when interacting with these incredible animals.”

McCann concluded, “As divers, we enjoy the beauty of the underwater world – it is only right that we seek to protect and aid it in any way possible.

Behaving responsibly around marine life is one way to do so.

Actively assisting research and conservation through citizen science is a further – yet simple – step to take to protect the beautiful marine ecosystems in this region.”