Sharks play an essential rol in the health of our oceans

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Research made visible: Whale sharks at Ningaloo Reef

Dutch Shark Society Photographer Peter Verhoog had the privilege of accompanying Dr. Mark Meekan of the Australian Institute of Marine Science to Ningaloo Reef. Mark has been monitoring whale sharks through tagging and photo ID since 2005.

Dr. Mark Meekan and one of ‘his’ whale sharks. Picture: Dutch Shark Society, Peter Verhoog

Adult whale sharks  turn up at Ningaloo every year from about March through to the end of July. But where do they go afterwards? Mark is determined to find out! Marine conservation is almost never a national matter: migratory species can cross many borders and regulations have to span more than one nation to protect a species. The whale shark is a highly migratory and a cosmopolitan tropical and warm temperate species, and it is established, that the whale shark occurs in an astonishing number of countries : 124 countries worldwide. Species protection has to be established in national and international waters.

Concerns about the declining numbers and size of whale sharks visiting Ningaloo Marine Park have prompted an extensive tagging program by the Western Australian Marine Science Institute.

Mark Meekan and his team have been attaching tracking devices and cameras to the whale sharks, that have revealed some startling facts. Tag data have revealed that whale sharks seem to head out in different directions. Some go to Southeast Asia, others swim up north to Indonesian waters and some head for the open ocean. During their journeys, whale sharks can travel 30 kilometers a day and make deep dives to over 1,000 metres.

And one tag, attached at Christmas Island in 2008, was even collected at the home of a fisherman, who found it collecting turtle eggs on a beach and had taken back to the village. Thanks to Google Earth, Mark Meekan paid him a visit! The tag was probably ripped off by a predator.

Mark is accompanied by marine biologists who study plankton, identify and sometimes tag the sharks and take tissue samples for DNA testing to examine the genetic structure of whale shark populations.

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