Identifying Whale Sharks by the Stars

Friday January 05, 2018 Written by garry


To identify individual whale sharks and learn more about them, researchers have looked to the stars. Kind of.

The thing is, despite the plethora of photos of them online, whale sharks are pretty elusive, low-profile beasties. They don't travel in pods, and nobody knows how many of them there are. Added to that, sightings of neonatal whale sharks are rare; up until 1995, nobody really knew how they even gave birth, and still to this day, their mating and calf-rearing habits are largely a mystery.

Things, however, are on the improve thanks to Wildbook for Whale Sharks’ unusual pairing of a Hubble telescope algorithm with an online photo repository. Creating a website that people could upload their whale shark photos to was easy, but identifying the animal in each photo was another thing altogether. Every whale shark has a unique pattern, but recognising that pattern by eye is laborious and time-consuming. So that’s where NASA, and eventually astronomers from Hubble, came in.

Using an algorithm used to identify patches of sky the Hubble was pointed at, the clever team behind Wildbook for Whale Sharks were suddenly able to identify nearly every whale shark from the 30,000 encounters recorded between 1992 and 2014. Coupled with information such as where and when the photos of these encounters were taken, the data at their disposal grew significantly. From those 30,000 encounters, more than 6,000 whale sharks have been documented, along with their travel habits and hot spots.

The project's still underway so if you happen to be deep-sea diving over the holidays, and if you happen to snap one of these great ocean creatures, you can help the researchers out by uploading your photos to their site. The rest of us can just bask in the glorious photos and incredible data coming out of the site here.