A project of Mote Marine Laboratory in conjunction with the partners and sponsors detailed below.
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Despite holding the distinction as the world’s largest living fish, our overall understanding of whale shark biology and ecology is still very limited. On Florida’s Gulf coast, sightings of these huge plankton-eating sharks are reported sporadically and their presence in local waters can be unpredictable and fleeting. So when biologists from Mote Marine Laboratory’s Center for Shark Research were recently notified about a pair of whale sharks near one of the local artificial reefs off Sarasota, Florida, they immediately seized the opportunity to learn more about these mysterious ocean giants.
The researchers were able to locate the two sharks and outfit one of them (a female named ‘Sara’) with a satellite-linked transmitter that enables scientists to track the animal’s movements for up to a year. Sara's satellite tag is designed to transmit location and other information about the shark’s travels when she comes to the surface. (The other shark, a male named 'Sota,' was also outfitted with a satellite tag, but his tag was a pop-up model that won't report its data until it separates from the shark in 3 months.)
Three weeks later (18 June 2010), the CSR made another field excursion into the Gulf to investigate recent reports from fishermen of whale sharks about 40-50 km west of Sarasota. Interestingly, this was about the same area where CSR scientists had been receiving signals from the satellite tag of whale shark ‘Sara’ in the days prior. After venturing offshore to the site of the reports, the team found a small aggregation of whale sharks feeding in the surface waters about 45 km off Sarasota– and sure enough, this group of 10 sharks included both Sara and Sota. This fortuitous event provided the researchers with the rare opportunity to examine satellite tags several weeks after deployment and assess how well they were attached and if there were any adverse effects to the sharks. Additionally, the CSR scientists used the opportunity to attach one of their towed satellite transmitters to one of the other sharks from the group – a male named ‘Dylan’ so that he could be tracked the same way Sara is being tracked. They also outfitted another male shark (named ‘Gilbert’) with a pop-up satellite tag that will stay attached for four months before detaching and reporting its archived data. Finally, the researchers double-tagged Sara with a pop-up tag, which will provide a rare opportunity to study her movements in detail and calibrate the positions of one tag against the other.
The data from tracking whale sharks adds to our understanding of their movement and migration patterns and ultimately helps protect these vulnerable ocean travelers. Of special concern at this time is the impact of the Deepwater Horizon oil spill on the movements, feeding and survival of whale sharks in the Gulf of Mexico. Because whale sharks are filter feeders, oil in the water threatens their ability to feed, or even breathe properly. Tracking Sara's and Sota's movements in relation to the distribution of oil in the Gulf is a primary objective of this project.
The Mote CSR has been working intensively on whale shark biology in the Gulf of Mexico since 2003, primarily off the Yucatan Peninsula with Mexican partners including Proyecto Domino and the Comision Nacional de Areas Naturales Protegidas (CONANP). In this research we have tracked whale sharks over thousands of kilometers of ocean and on dives of more than 1,800 meters deep.
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Mote Marine Laboratory
Founded in 1955, Mote Marine Laboratory is an independent nonprofit marine research and education organization. Mote is dedicated to advancing the science of the sea through the study of marine and estuarine ecosystems, through its public aquarium and through an education division that provides unique programs for all ages. Throughout 2010, Mote is celebrating its 55th Anniversary with special events highlighting its groundbreaking ocean research and outreach.