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  • Writer's pictureMaureen Pfaff

Whale shark & megafauna research - Dhigurah, Maldives

Updated: Jun 12, 2020

Whale sharks are the largest fish (yes, they are fish) in our oceans and yet, we still know shockingly little about them. In Feb 2020 I spent two weeks on the local island Dighurah in the Maldives, patrolling the largest Marine Protected Area in the Maldives. During that time I was working with MWSRP (Maldives Whale Shark Research Program), a not-for-profit conservation group, and some of the kindest people I have ever met. Trip Plan here.

Arrival & Exploring

2 flights, 1 bus, and 1 boat into the journey I finally got to my destination in the Maldives. Dhigurah island. It was almost midnight and I was exhausted from a long day of travelling.


The first day started very relaxed, so I set out to explore the island. The Maldives has almost 1,200 islands, only 150 of which are “resort islands”(the ones you imagine yourself on for your honeymoon). But there are another 200 “local” islands, without any fancy resorts, but rather with some guest houses (if at all) and local Maldivians going about their day. The Maldives is a Muslim country, and that meant covering up for me. No shoulders or knees were allowed to peep out. Even whilst on the beach. There was, however, one specific beach where sunbathing and swimming in bikinis was allowed. The “tourist” beach, which was not frequented by the locals.

In the afternoon I went to explore the southern beach, and decided to take my drone. It’s a 1h swift walk to get there through the most beautiful palm trees with the beach on either side. Bringing the drone turned out to be the best decision ever, because, depending on the time of day, the tide occasionally reveals an enormously long sandbank. At a certain point during the day the water is so low that you could walk all the way to the neighbouring island. I was the only one around (so dared to sunbathe in bikini for a bit) , and even saw a couple of turtles and a small shark in the water whilst walking along the beach. It really shows how remote this was!

Dhigurah island is part of a Marine Protected Area (MPA) called South Ari Atoll. MWSRP are based there to patrol the MPA and collect valuable data on whale sharks primarily, but also on other megafauna, such as turtles, reef sharks, and manta rays. On top of that they also record vessel data (e.g. if boats are speeding at >10 knots) and environmental data (wind speed, current, temperature etc.).


The dhoni

The next morning I was on my way to the ‘dhoni’ (which is what locals call boats there), along with the other five volunteers. It was an international crowd, and everybody was excited for the day ahead and to hopefully catch a glimpse of some whale sharks. Once on the dhoni we were allowed to take off any covers and be in bikinis and rash guards. The following procedures made up our daily routine for five days a week.

First, we would decide on a route for the day based on whale shark sightings the previous day and information we had from other boats. We would then climb the stairs to the top of the boat, which opened up to a flat surface that served as our lookout spot. The dhoni was moving slowly so as not to injure any wildlife with the engine. We would often stand on top of the dhoni for hours before seeing the tell-tale shadow of a whale shark moving through the water. There were many occasions where we were fooled into thinking there was a whale shark due to stones and other shadows in the water. Eventually came the exhilarating shout of “shark” from someone eagerly pointing in a certain direction. Time for action! Running downstairs, putting your fins on, clearing the mask, getting the camera ready, and sitting on the side of the boat until we were asked to jump in. Whilst sitting and waiting we decided who would take which shark ID photo. There were several to be taken: Both sides, the top, the caudal (back) fin and the sex shot. The sex shot meant someone had to dive underneath the whale shark to see whether it was a male or female. This was the hardest shot to get, as the sharks wouldn’t always stay at the surface, therefore free diving was a must. When a whale shark was sighted, one person would stay on board, to count the number of boats, the people at the encounter and observe their code of conduct.


Code of Conduct

Whilst it’s very exciting to experience a whale shark up close, it’s important to realise that we should obey certain rules around them. The first one is that we should stay 3-4m away from the shark, and obviously not touch them. The front of the head is taboo, as we wouldn’t want to obstruct their path and make them change direction. It’s also crucial to watch out for any boats in the vicinity and inform them if the shark starts swimming towards one. Normally boats should drop off snorkelers behind the shark and then move away from the encounter. Furthermore no flash photography is allowed, and everyone should be careful with selfie sticks!


Honestly, if you want to get a great photo of a whale shark you’d want to be further away, as they are much bigger than you think! In order to get the entire shark into your shot you need to be at least 4m away, if not further. Whilst taking photos is encouraged, we should also pay attention to the shark's behaviour. They might be curious and unbothered by people, or evasive, and trying to avoid people. Depending on their behaviour we should adapt ours, which might mean staying further away to give the shark some space. The formal behaviours we had to report on were: evasive, cruising, feeding, inquisitive and interactive.



First encounter

Once we were in the water, it meant swimming! Whale sharks move quite slowly, but in comparison to a human, who is less than ⅓ of their size, it can get quite strenuous to keep up with them. They can grow up to 10m long, and way around 19 tonnes. My first time jumping into the water I was ecstatic and nervous at the same time. And then suddenly I could see him. The whale shark was heading straight towards me.

Scrambling under water, I moved out of his path, so I could admire him from the side. I was almost starstruck and had to remind myself to continue moving. The friendly giant was called Shaibaan and one of the individuals that I became very familiar with during my 2 weeks.


Whale sharks interacting

A couple of days into my conservation work we had one of the most incredible encounters. Not ONE whale shark, but TWO whale sharks at once! Sharks in general are solitary creatures, and you would rarely see them in pairs. This is one of the reasons why there is currently an award up for grabs, for anyone who films two whale sharks mating. This has NEVER been filmed before. Crazy. Whilst we were in the water taking photos of one whale shark I suddenly heard some shouting by the MWSRP team. With my head in the water I wasn’t able to discern what it was about, so bringing my ears above water I heard about the second whale shark. I turned in the direction they were pointing and suddenly had a second whale shark swimming straight towards me. One of the most incredible feelings!



Why do we know so little about them?

I mentioned earlier that we actually don’t know much about whale sharks, even though they are the biggest fish in the sea. First, let’s remember that whale sharks are sharks, not whales. Whales can be much bigger, as they are mammals, of course.


The reason we know so little about them is twofold. The first one has to do with their behaviour and the second one with their biology. We know that whale sharks spend a lot of their time quite deep. You might be surprised, as we only encounter them swimming at the surface. They spend time at the surface to thermoregulate. As they need to adjust their body temperature, they take advantage of the warmer water at the surface surface. We know that they spend a lot of time way deeper in the ocean due to tagging. The lowest depth a male shark was found in was 1,928 meters.


The second reason being biology has to do with what they are made of. To put this in perspective, whales are made off a lot of blubber (fat), which will make a whale float when they die. This leads to whale beachings. During these beachings, scientists are able to dissect them. In comparison whale sharks, as they are sharks, are not made up of blubber. This means when a whale shark dies, they unfortunately sink to the bottom, never to be seen again.


These two reasons explain why we know very little about them as a species. We don’t know where they mate, how long the incubation period is, or how often they give birth in their lifespan. Most sighted sharks are male and have reached sexual maturity, which seems to suggest that the mating, giving birth and growing up occurs much deeper.


The data

During my two weeks and at least 12 whale shark encounters in the Maldives we collected a lot of data. On top of data from whale shark encounters, we also recorded multiple manta ray, countless turtle and other megafauna encounters. Here is what we did with the data:


Whale sharks

During the encounters, as explained, we took certain ID photos. These ID photos were then edited in Adobe Lightroom and uploaded into I3s.

That’s where we could match the whale shark pattern (mostly the dots and gills) to all existing whale sharks in the Maldives that had been spotted before. The technology was first developed by NASA for star constellations, so pretty cool! It’s fascinating that each whale shark has a unique identifiable pattern. Once this was done and we found a match, we could add the encounters into the Big Fish Network (which is only for the Maldives). Every country has (or should have) their own fish network. On top of updating the local fish network, we also uploaded the data into Wildbook, which records whale shark encounters world wide. An interesting fact is that Maldivian whale sharks don’t migrate to other regions scientists have found. This means that all 400+ whale sharks, that have been spotted in the Maldives so far, stay within that area (nobody knows why). This means that the Maldives is one of the only regions worldwide where these giants can be seen all year around.

Environmentals

The environmental data we recorded included wind speed, water temperature, visibility, current and coordinates. These were measured during a whale shark encounter and added into the Big Fish Network as well. That way over time it was possible to look at aggregates of the environmentals whale sharks preferred.


Other megafauna

As mentioned, we also recorded other fish and mammals that we saw in the sea, such as manta rays (another shark species), dolphins, turtles and reef sharks. With manta rays we were able to take ID shots and add them into the network. This would then get uploaded into the equivalent of Wildbook for mantas, called Manta Trust.


Vessels

On top of all the animal data, we also recorded a lot of vessel data about boats we came across. This included the speed at which they were travelling, the types of boats, how many people were on board, and which resorts they were from. If we encountered a boat that was not adhering to the rules within the Marine Protected Area, we would report them to the local authorities. During my time in the Maldives I encountered many whale sharks with injuries unfortunately. Most of these were from speeding boats, which was incredibly sad to see. It’s still the case that boats don’t stick to the speed limit, due to over eager tourists and resorts who want to please their guests.


We spent almost every day on the boat looking for whale sharks and then spend the entire late afternoon and evening entering the data.


Manta Ray encounter

On one of the days when we hadn't spotted any whale sharks, we were about to head back home, when we encountered a manta ray next to the boat. Many of the volunteers had been in contact with mantas before, and therefore I was one of the only two people who went in to inspect them. What followed was the most amazing experience I could have ever imagined with them. These three mantas were so curious that they kept circling and inspecting us.

Honestly after spending two weeks chasing whale sharks, I have to say that I find manta rays even more fascinating. They look so alien, like no other fish out there. Unfortunately though, not immune to injuries either. We had one interaction with them later on where we removed a fishing hook from their mouth with a knife, which was very sad to witness. The ray had been in a lot of pain clearly, but was overjoyed when it was finally removed.



Diving

All of the encounters we had with manta rays and whale sharks were during snorkeling, which is the easier way to see them. Snorkeling means you are much more spontaneous and can jump in right there and then without a lot of equipment. However, I didn't want to go to the Maldives without going diving. So diving we went!


We spent diving on two days with Island Divers and encountered the most incredible marine life. From dangerous scorpion and stone fish, to reef sharks and octopuses. There is an abundance of life down there, and I was so grateful that I was privy able to take the time and experience it.

Personally my favourite encounter was with two octopuses that we observed mating. What’s very interesting, is that female octopuses are usually a lot bigger than male ones. That’s why male octopuses need to watch out to not be eaten whilst they attempt to mate the females. Therefore they essentially extend one of their tentacles and mate “at arm’s length”. A few months after the mating the male one dies unfortunately. The female waits until all the eggs have hatched and then dies herself.

My second favourite encounter was when I became part of a huge fish swarm of yellow Lutjanus Snappers, who were completely unfazed by my presence. For a short while I was swimming amongst them. I loved observing how this swarm was moving and responding to outer circumstances.


My time in the Maldives had to come to an end at some point (and so did this blog post). Having seen what I was able to experience and how I was able to help, I definitely want to do more of these kinds of projects in the future. Now, you might be asking yourself:


What can I do?

I understand that you might not be able to volunteer or work in conservation, so here are a few things you can do whilst on holiday or in your day-to-day life:


1. Support the right place/company: Go to places where they don't feed whale sharks, but where you can observe them naturally.

2. Ask the captain not to speed in marine protected areas

3. During a whale shark encounter adhere to the code of conduct

4. Upload photos of whale sharks and injuries to Wildbook

5. Be more aware of what you buy or eat in general, e.g. don't eat shark fin soup

6. Don't throw any trash into the ocean. Whale sharks are filter feeders, and they will eat anything that is small enough to be mistaken for plankton or crustaceans.


"The greatest danger to our planet is the belief that someone else will save it..."
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