Research from the land down under: Conducting research on Australia’s whale sharks

By Natalie Pitman, Contributing Writer

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Ever since I was a child, I dreamed of marine biology research and conservation. It was this passion that fueled my ambition to study biology at Gettysburg College, and what led me to travel thousands of miles to “the land down under” to conduct research in Australia this past spring semester.

I became interested in the ocean at a young age and have followed my passion in many ways: joining the on-campus biology club, Biosphere, and becoming a student ambassador with Gettysburg admissions to share my research experiences with prospective students. I dreamed of going abroad from the moment I enrolled at Gettysburg, and knew that Australia was where my marine biology interest would lead me. The SIT program I enrolled into, Rainforest, Reef, and Cultural Ecology, had field-based classes which allowed me to be thrown into the rainforest and the Great Barrier Reef to study hands-on.

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At the Lizard Island Research Center

The most exciting portion of my abroad trip, in my opinion, was the opportunity for independent research. The possibilities were endless; any student in this program could assist a researcher anywhere on the continent with any type of research.

“It was really hard to narrow down my options,” I explained during an interview, “I started off wanting to study black-tipped reef sharks on the Great Barrier Reef, but when my advisor suggested working with whale sharks, I could hardly contain my excitement.” I reached out to Dr. Brad Norman, a researcher who has studied whale shark life history traits and travel patterns for decades. Dr. Norman is also co-founder of ECOCEAN, the worldwide online database of whale shark photos and encounters that aims toward attaining a better understanding of the animal’s distribution and numbers.

Whale sharks are the largest fish in the world, reaching lengths of over 18 meters, and are extremely understudied. They gather in Western Australia in the winter, from April to August, months which aligned with the time that Pitman would be available to conduct research. As soon as I heard back from Dr. Norman, I booked my flight to the opposite side of the continent and began my independent journey to Exmouth, Western Australia.

The burnt, red dirt and abundance of dingoes and emus set the scene for my new residence for the next month. With Dr. Norman as my advisor, I quickly learned about the whale shark research I would be conducting in such an exciting place. Ningaloo Reef, the fringing reef I would be based off of, is home to a vast number of different species. The coral spawning that occurs twice a year allows for huge marine megafauna to gather, such as humpback whales, orcas, manta rays, spinner dolphins, sea turtles, and of course, whale sharks.

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Pictured above is one of the whale sharks I had the opportunity to snorkel alongside during my independent research project in Western Australia.

“I can’t even begin to explain what it feels like to swim next to a whale shark,” I explained after diving in with the sharks. “This beautiful animal is so graceful and massive, and moves so slowly but I still found myself swimming as hard as I could to keep up. Each one is so unique and they all have different mannerisms; it’s so fantastic to see them in their natural habitat.”

My research focused on the entry and analysis of the past years of research. I entered over 1,000 individual whale shark photos and encounters, aiding in the ultimate research regarding whale shark populations. This shark’s population has been steadily declining due to fishing and other human interactions, but Dr. Brad Norman hopes to assess if the whale shark tourism industry is helping the numbers rebound and increase over time.

Ningaloo Reef is protected under law and therefore the sharks cannot be hunted or killed, with strict tourism regulations to go along with it. A snorkeler must stay three meters away from all sides of the shark, and cannot touch it. Pitman had the opportunity to get in the water with the sharks four times, and I explained how that was sometimes quite difficult:

“The sharks are all different. Some travel very quickly and don’t care at all about the ten people swimming alongside it. Some, on the other hand, are very curious and will actually swim directly towards the boat, or even a person!”

Another rule in the water is to not swim in front of the whale shark, as their eyes are very small and they have poor eyesight. They could run into a snorkeler and get scared, and swim straight down into the depths to escape, which could be dangerous if someone becomes caught in the current.

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Enjoying the whale shark snorkeling experience from a very safe distance

While in the water with the sharks, I would take photographs of the right and left side of the animal that would later be used in analysis. “The spots on a whale shark are just like our fingerprints,” I elaborated. “They have the same spots from the age of maturity to death, and no two sharks have the same patterns!” This spotting pattern allows for the identification of individual whale sharks, determined by using an algorithm on the ECOCEAN website. The algorithm is the same one used by astronomers to identify new constellations in the sky, and it also maps out the distances between spots. I was able to identify individuals that had never been seen in Ningaloo Reef, as well as ones seen yearly, and even some sharks that hadn’t been seen in the area for over 10 years!

I traveled to Australia with the hopes of pursuing my passion for marine biology, with a little remorse over the fact that I was missing out on Dr. Urcuyo’s tropical marine biology course. However, my interest in sharks led me to Western Australia to study the largest fish in the ocean and gave me a once in a lifetime opportunity.

I now return to Gettysburg College for my last year, after spending my time this summer at the National Marine Life Center in Buzzards Bay, Massachusetts. I had the opportunity to intern here working with injured seals and sea turtles, and hope to follow this path and volunteer at the National Aquarium in D.C.

I hope to one day become a researcher studying shark populations and distributions. But for the next year, I will rave about my experiences abroad as a student ambassador and continue to love every day as a biology major at Gettysburg College.

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1 Comment

  1. Wow! Truly it was a profound experience & an amazing year. Thank
    you for sharing your experiences…sounds like the ocean is a better place with you in it Natalie Pitman

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