At Ningaloo Reef off northwest Australia, Brad Norman and I are on the hunt for the biggest fish in the sea. On the deck of a tour boat, we wait for the signal to jump into the water, along with eight wetsuited tourists.
The guides unroll their operation with military precision. A circling Cessna spots the behemoths from the air and messages the skipper of the boat, who alerts the crew. It’s time. Clutching snorkel to face we step off the marlin board into 20 metres of churning sea.
Sacha, the guide bobbing in the sea to our right, holds out an arm and shows us where to line up. “Put your heads under,” she yells. As if on cue, a whale shark materialises out of the blue. Like some immense royal personage parading past a guard of honour, he proceeds on his way, barely acknowledging us. He’s accompanied by a royal retinue: in tight formation there’s two long, thin sucker fish beneath his chest, a school of small bright blue fish at his flank, thousands of tiny crustacean hangers-on, and now me. Norman grabs my arm and swims me ahead of the tourist pack to take a close-up shot of the spots behind the pectoral fin.
This is not just another tourist snap. I have become part of a vast citizen science corps that is vital to Norman’s mission to fill in the blank chapters of the whale shark’s life story. The photo will be added to a library of such images that are used to track individuals based on their spotty pattern. Like a fingerprint, no two are alike. The identification is made with the help of a NASA algorithm, originally designed to identify star patterns revealed by the Hubble space telescope.
It’s just one of the unconventional methods Norman has pioneered over the past 22 years to learn more about the animal. But his interest in the species goes beyond intellectual curiosity. For reasons still poorly understood, whale sharks are becoming more scarce. Every new whale shark that’s tracked, every new behaviour that’s discovered, brings Norman closer to understanding how to protect them.
Now Norman is feeling a new sense of urgency. Last July a global census found that in the past 75 years, the whale shark population has dropped by more than half. Soon after, the International Union for Conservation of Nature, in consultation with Norman, updated the whale shark’s status from “threatened” to “endangered” on the IUCN Red List of imperilled species.
The greatest threat to whale sharks is human beings. Found in tropical oceans around the world, they are on the menu in many Asian countries as “tofu fish”, while whale shark fin makes for an impressive table decoration at Chinese wedding banquets. Boat strikes also claim their share of fatalities.
So far whale sharks are protected in only 10% of the countries they inhabit. Norman is hopeful the new IUCN listing will change that. But we need to move sooner rather than later, he says. “The critical time is now.”
Whale sharks may be the biggest fish in the sea, reaching 18 metres in length, but they are rarely seen. Unlike true whales, they do not need to surface to breathe and likely spend large amounts of time on the ocean floor like their relatives, the bottom-dwelling wobbegongs. But to feed they must surface. They dine on the ocean’s floating feast of plankton, which is what brings them to Ningaloo every March.
On the first full moon of the month the coral spawn in unison – and somehow Rhincodon typus keeps this date in its diary. Other species spawn in turn, making for a multicourse menu that keeps the filter feeders sated until July. Where they go for their next feed has long been a mystery.
With so little known about whale sharks, researchers have no idea what other factors could be lowering their numbers. For instance, they have no idea where they breed and give birth. Could their breeding grounds be compromised?
Norman represents one of their best bets for survival. He’s been raising the global alarm about their status since 1999, when a report he wrote led to the IUCN reclassifying them from “indeterminate” to “ vulnerable to extinction”, and in 2001 he successfully nominated the whale shark for full protection in Australian waters. Those efforts have earned him a string of awards including a 2006 Rolex Award and the West Australian Premier’s Outreach Award in 2009. In 2010 he was named a National Geographic Ocean hero.
You’d expect Norman’s star status to be underpinned by an academic position and secure funding. But that’s not the case. He doesn’t have a PhD or paid university position (he is an affiliate at Murdoch University) and he struggles to secure funding. “He lives hand to mouth to give his time to the animals,” explains Lyn Beazley, former chief scientist of Western Australia and one of Norman’s stalwart champions.
What Norman lacks in resources he makes up for in resourcefulness. Without the funds to support a research boat and scientific team over the past 22 years, he’s recruited the help of tour boats, tourists and volunteers. And he has steadily developed out-of-the-box collaborations with the likes of astronomers, penguin researchers and vaccine developers to unveil more and more of the whale shark’s story.
Perhaps there’s an upside of not being bound up in university bureaucracy. Norman is immersed in his community and readily forges partnerships. The personality helps; there’s little ego to get in the way. Within minutes of meeting Norman, you’re mates. That small-town camaraderie was forged in the rural outskirts of Perth. His father was a butcher and both parents ran a stockfeed store. Growing up, he loved horses and thought of becoming a vet.
A swim with a whale shark changed all that.
It was 1995. Norman had completed a degree in marine science at Murdoch University and was doing volunteer research for the Department of Parks and Wildlife (DPAW) at Ningaloo. Diving in to witness the whale shark’s parade, he recalls, “I froze awestruck, watching this beautiful creature swim past”. Beyond the awe, Norman realised these charismatic animals could be the flagship for protecting other struggling marine species. “I didn’t want to hit people over the head with a wet fish, but whale sharks could make people more aware of the problem. That’s where my passion went.”
Whale shark tourism was still in its infancy, but it was clear to Norman and the DPAW that the growing popularity of whale shark tourism would need to be managed to avoiding harming the animals. (In 1995, just over 1000 tourists swam with them over the five-month season. By 2011, that figure was 17,000.) Norman put his name forward to begin a study and doors began to open. Murdoch University enrolled him for a master’s degree, the tour boat operators offered him free rides, DPAW gave him office space, the local pub provided food, and lodgings were found for him courtesy of the town caravan park. And thus Norman’s signature style was forged.
Too impatient to formalise his studies as a PhD, he powered ahead gathering data.
He formed the not-for-profit group ECOCEAN, largely staffed by volunteers to help carry out research and produce reports such as the Best Practice Whale Shark Ecotourism manual. Somehow he keeps scraping together resources to keep going. “I don’t have a million bucks, so I have to be inventive and creative,” he says. “I engage the public, the next generation of scientists – we get kids interested and give them the feeling of ownership.”
One creative example is a school citizen science program called “Race Around the World”. Schools raise $5,000 for the satellite-tagging of a whale shark and the students help with tracking. So far, 16 schools in the state of Western Australia have been involved; the goal for 2017 is to take the program Australia-wide.
Students have already tracked 12 whale sharks and their data will help draw the still uncharted map of whale shark migration. For instance, just last April, Norman published a paper in Pacific Conservation Biology that revealed for the first time that apart from Ningaloo the whale shark had other haunts along the West Australian coast. After they leave in July, they visit Shark Bay, some 500 kilometres south of Ningaloo, presumably to feast on another spawning species.
As his steady stream of publications in high‑ranking journals attest, Norman’s personal formula of agility, collegiality and determination is paying off.
Norman’s Master’s degree research, begun in 1995, aimed to monitor the impact of the Ningaloo tourist industry on whale sharks. The first step was to find a way to identify individuals. Perhaps the whale shark’s spotty pattern would provide a signature, in the same way that variations in zebra stripes and leopard spots had provided researchers with a way to identify these animals. Norman began photographing the spots just behind the gills, near the pectoral fin, where they seemed to show the highest variation. He did the identification by eye, a process Norman describes as “crazy laborious”.
What took the project to the next level was a chance email in 2003 from a software programmer by the name of Jason Holmberg. Based in Portland, Oregon, he had become smitten with whale sharks after a swim in the Galapagos. He liked what he’d read about Norman’s work online, and to the struggling researcher’s delight, Holmberg offered to help design a bigger and better database.
The efforts of thousands of tourists might be captured this way. But the bottleneck was identifying the spots. Norman had established through his painstaking work that they were indeed unique fingerprints, but identifying them by sight was not only time-consuming but error-prone.
It turned out one of Holmberg’s college buddies had a solution to the problem. Zaven Arzoumanian was an astronomer with NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Centre in Maryland. He regularly used a computer algorithm to identify new star patterns revealed by the Hubble space telescope. Perhaps the algorithm would also recognise the patterns of a whale shark?
It sounds like the beginning of a joke: a marine scientist, a software programmer and a NASA astronomer walk into a bar… But the oddball team produced the goods. Arzoumanian modified the star pattern software to read whale shark spots. Holmberg and Norman began testing the software on thousands of photos and found that the program rapidly narrowed down the number of possible matches. A publication in 2005 in the Journal of Applied Ecology showed it identified individuals with 90% accuracy. Even so, explains Norman, the final analysis is always done by eye, by cross‑matching to the whale shark’s body scars or fin and tail notches to confirm the identification.
The method has been used to identify more than 7,000 individual whale sharks in 54 countries. “It’s bigger than Ben Hur now,” says Norman.
It was that “out-of-the-box” solution to the problem of identifying individual whale sharks that won Norman a $100,000 Rolex Award in 2006. The funds enabled Norman to spread the methodology to researchers in Mozambique, Galapagos, Thailand, Mexico, Seychelles, UAE, Philippines, Taiwan, Indonesia and the Maldives, who now contribute to the photo ID library. Holmberg continues to improve and maintain the site.
The Rolex Award has also led him to cross paths with other left-field types. When Norman swapped his wetsuit for a black tie to attend the Rolex Award ceremony in India in 2006, he met Rory Wilson, a passionate wildlife researcher and gifted engineer. Wilson’s award recognised his development of the equivalent of a “black box recorder” for animals.
If you’re an animal, your life story is pretty much told by your movements – the tale would be entirely different for a sloth and a penguin. With that in mind, in 1980 Wilson came up with the concept of a movement diary. Alone on an island off the coast of South Africa, he’d spent a year staring at African penguins, trying to figure out why the population was declining. He could observe them waddling around the island; he could weigh them and count their offspring. But these “Jekyll and Hyde” animals had an athletic watery life that was hidden to him. The frustration catapulted his inner engineer into action. He began spending long hours dreaming up a device that would reveal the penguin’s other life.
Once back home, he began building a tag equipped with sophisticated movement detectors – tri-axial accelerometers and magnetometers. Attached to their lower back, 40 times a second they measured whether the animal was going up, down or sideways. A second sensor attached to the beak measured the angle so it was possible to calculate how much, and how often, prey was taken. When he retrieved these diaries from Magellanic penguins, a species closely related to African penguins, he found they ate an unfathomable amount – more than half their body weight in a day. Most of that mass was burnt off by the time the bird made it back to the nest.
That a penguin could eat this much food in a day was startling. “The diversity of what animals do is awe-inspiring,” he says. “The daily diary shows us how constrained our thinking is.” The finding probably explained why the African penguin population was dropping: its immense requirement for food was compromised by the increased competition from fishermen.
When the two black-tie-wearing naturalists met, the conversation soon turned to the question: what might a motion diary reveal about the hidden life of whale sharks?
Several years later, the answers are coming. The pair designed a tag that clipped onto the shark’s dorsal fin but not too tightly – it would slide off within a few days.
The data from the first tag was “a game-changer”, says Wilson. “It’s an extraordinary experience when you get a tag back – you’re opening the book on the animal for the first time.”
The tag had been attached for less than an hour, but it revealed a behaviour more often seen in birds. The whale shark glided downwards and then, like a bird flapping its wings, beat its tail to power back to the surface. Then it repeated the motion. It’s the same sort of energy-saving technique you’d see in a blue tit crossing a meadow, says Wilson.
One chapter of the whale shark life story is still glaringly absent: its love life.
Most of the individuals that come to Ningaloo are youngsters, mostly males. Norman’s work has established that male sharks reach maturity by the age of nine, evidenced by the appearance of a pair of claspers near their back fins, their equivalent of a penis. But of the 1100 whale sharks that have visited Ningaloo in the past 20 years, very few were mature males or females. So where does the adult action take place?
Since 2012 Norman has clamped satellite tags onto the dorsal fin of some whale sharks. These send a beep to the satellite, but can only do so when, in classical shark fashion, the dorsal fin breaches the surface. Those messages have revealed the outlines of the migration story. So far the furthest extent of travel is Indonesia, but many remain in local waters. Some have been tagged congregating at the surface in deep waters off the coast of West Australia. Could it be a mating ground? Norman is pinning his hopes on tagging the most mature males and females, if he can find some.
There are three ways of tracking the animals: by satellite, which tracks long-distance travels; the motion diary, which records daily activity; and a network of acoustic receivers dispersed along the reef that records pings from whale sharks tagged with a transmitter. So far the one that causes the most trouble for Norman is the satellite tag. To do their job they need to stay attached for the extent of the migration – at least a year. But clamping a tag onto a metre-high, 10-centimetre-thick fin is a major challenge. Few tags stay attached long enough to deliver useful information. It turns out this is a problem that could use rocket science.
Another chance meeting, at a Rolex Award ceremony in Delhi in 2012, brought the right person into Norman’s orbit: Mark Kendall, a former rocket scientist. Kendall had developed an unusual way to use ballistics to deliver particulate vaccines just 50 microns below human skin, where the immune cells are concentrated. The principle is that the faster skin is hit, the stiffer it is, and the less its deflects tiny injected particles. Particulate vaccines are ideal for less developed countries, since they require no refrigeration.
One invention of Kendall’s used a rocket gun to inject microscopic gold particles bearing a vaccine. Another, the “Nanopatch”, is a high-density array of silicon microprojections tipped with dry particles of vaccine. About the size of a postage stamp, it uses a spring-based applicator to achieve velocity.
You might not think a medical devices engineer and a marine scientist would strike a common chord. But, Kendall recalls, “We could immediately see the synergies; I’d been working on skin for the last 18 years. My mind began racing”. By the time they left Delhi, Norman and Kendall were working on a ballistically inspired way to tag a whale shark.
Kendall was there in the water with us last July, getting firsthand experience of what was required to swim along with the whale shark and clamp the tag onto the dorsal fin.
His team of scientists and engineers at the University of Queensland are lining up to be involved in the project. “Many of us in science have a lot to learn from Norman,” he says. “He is so integrated into his community and so collaborative, and he thinks outside the box.”
The residents of Exmouth are appreciative of Norman’s work. “Norman’s a bit of a celebrity in town,” Sacha, the guide at Ningaloo, tells me. The town of some 2,200 people on the shores of Ningaloo reef was founded at the height of the Cold War in 1967 as a communications base for nuclear-powered US submarines. Decommissioned as a military base in 1992, civilian telecommunications continues to provide employment for some of the townsfolk, as do deep-sea gas rigs. But the lion’s share of jobs now comes from the tourist trade, and whale sharks are the star attraction.
In the town, they are plastered on everything from airport walls to lycra leggings. Yet for all their star billing and Norman’s own celebrity status, he still finds himself in a desperate struggle to find funds for the work that is vital to their survival.
He finally submitted a PhD thesis earlier this year. It may at last open the doors to traditional funding streams. “We’d only need one government grant to make a big difference,” he says. “I keep working in the hope we can crack it.”
Beazley is hopeful too. “He’s not your standard academic; he’s travelled the world to teach people how to stop whale sharks from going extinct,” she says. “Who else would be that dedicated? Someone should support him – he’s a gem.”
Meanwhile, Norman continues to break new ground. Most recently he’s been going out on a small borrowed boat to observe the whale sharks feeding at dusk. The daytime parade serves some sort of reconnaissance function; their cavernous mouths are closed to avoid drag. But with the cover of nightfall, vast balls of animal plankton rise to the surface and open-mouthed whale sharks rocket after them. “It’s an amazing sight,” a breathless Norman told me by phone in late July after returning from the sea that evening.
Despite the challenges, the passion that has kept him going for 22 years shows no sign of faltering. “I’m not just a scientist – I’m a conservationist and public educator,” he says. “We’re kicking goals for whale sharks and making a difference. That’s the legacy.”
Elizabeth Finkel is editor-at-large of Cosmos.
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