Chasing Giants: Whale Sharks in the Galapagos

On September 1st 2015, three whale shark scientists set off to the remote northern islands in the Galapagos archipelago in search of answers. The questions all revolve around one thing whale sharks!

Galapagos Whale Shark Project scientists, collaborators on these efforts, have identified an area where almost all whale shark sightings are pregnant females. But there are a number of unanswered questions surrounding this discovery… Where do they come from? Where do they go to? Where and how do they give birth? Why do we not see the pups? Where are the pups? The questions go on and on and on…

On this research trip Dr Simon Pierce will be accompanied by Dr Chris Rohner and PhD candidate Clare Prebble, living on board a small research vessel from September 1st – 14th. This three year project aims to answer the questions above, and in the process advance global whale shark conservation efforts. Along with the Galapagos Whale Shark Project team, they will be joined by several other whale shark scientists from Ecuador and the USA for what may be the most important whale shark research expedition to date.

The team will focus their time around Darwin Island in the far north of the Galapagos archipelago, one of the only places where pregnant whale sharks are routinely seen. We asked Simon what they will be doing out there to enable them to get some answers, “We will be photo-identifying all the sharks we see, so we know how many sharks are present at the site. This will also give us a better understanding whale shark movement patterns if the same individuals have been seen before in the Galapagos, or other countries. We will also be collecting tissue samples for stable isotope analysis and fatty acid analysis. These techniques use the chemical composition of whale shark skin tissue to better understand what habitats they have been using, and what they have been feeding on. I have heard this referred to as a “biological passport” for sharks, which is a nice analogy. We will also be tagging the sharks with satellite-linked tags so we can track their movements and habitat use over the months to come.”

The information that they can obtain from this type of research is vital for understanding more about the whale sharks in this area. It can help to provide understanding of areas that could be protected to ensure safe passage for the sharks on migration routes and, even more importantly, in birthing and pup habitats. Given that large female whale sharks are rarely seen elsewhere in the world, the team also hope to get a better idea of where they can be found.

If you would like to help to support this research project you can donate here.