The Philippines is home to over 7,100 islands, making it the fourth longest coastline in the world. The size and distribution of the country makes the assessment and conservation of the marine resources challenging. Accordingly, citizen science that engages locals and tourists in research and data collection is essential to conservation in this region. Specifically, we depend on divers and amateur researchers to identify whale sharks as part of a global effort to better understand and protect these animals.
Each whale shark has a unique marking of spots and stripes that serves as a “fingerprint,” allowing researchers to identify individual animals. Software originally developed by NASA to identify stars has been adapted to identify the animal, and we upload each photo to an international database. Our photos have resulted in a large number of positive matches and have yielded extremely valuable information regarding the migratory behavior of whale sharks throughout the Philippines and South East Asia.
Photographing a whale shark
When photographing a whale shark, the most important consideration is your impact on the animal. Always maintain a proper distance. You should remain at least 3 meters (10 feet) away from the head and 4 meters (13 feet) away from the tail of the animal at all times. Touching or blocking the path of a whale shark may disturb the shark, alter its behavior, and compromise future research efforts. Never chase a shark; photographs should be taken opportunistically.
Additionally, flash photography can be highly disruptive to whale sharks. Natural light is generally sufficient to take a proper ID shot.
We use the spot pattern on the left flank of the shark as a baseline for identifying the animal. Identification photos should be taken at relatively the same depth as the shark (just above the pectoral fin), and should capture the area from the last gill slit to immediately after the pectoral fin. The angle of the photo should be level with the angle of the shark. For good practice, and to maintain a minimum distance from the animal, the frame shot should include the gill slits to the start of the first dorsal fin.
If you take a photograph of a whale shark, please email it to firstname.lastname@example.org.