Spots the difference

Julian Cribb | VOLUME 22, ISSUE 2

Australian naturalist Brad Norman has created a global photo-ID system which enables others to help conserve these graceful monsters.

Before the swimmer’s eyes, glowing flecks shine like stars eerily transposed into the depths of the sea. Through a blue-dark veil of water, a huge shape gradually resolves itself, rising slowly and majestically to the surface.

After hundreds of sightings, Brad Norman still gets a thrill when the great, spotted whale shark comes into view, gliding effortlessly forward, its pale, metre-wide mouth agape to scoop up thousands of litres of protein-rich sea water. “When they’re down deep, they resemble a starfield under water,” he says. “As you swim above, the shark’s body seems to disappear and its white spots light up like stars in the night sky. It’s an awe-inspiring sight.”

The 38-year-old Australian naturalist has dedicated most of his adult life to the pursuit, identification, understanding and protection of the world’s largest fish, Rhincodon typus, the aptly-named whale shark. Reaching 18 metres in length, the huge beast resembles nothing so much as “a bus under water”, Brad says, albeit an animate, placid, occasionally inquisitive bus, pursuing its mysterious life across tens of thousands of kilometres of open ocean.

First recorded in 1828, only 350 whale sharks were sighted in the ensuing 150 years. Now, growth in dive tourism has brought a surge in sightings. Yet the whale shark remains elusive, and the World Conservation Union (IUCN), which engaged Norman to assess the species, classes it as “vulnerable” to extinction. Only a handful of countries protect it.

Brad Norman is determined to find out far more about these fish. His visionary plan to involve thousands of divers and marine tourists worldwide in the photo-monitoring and conservation of whale sharks, significantly enhancing knowledge of this elusive species, saw him acclaimed a Laureate in the 2006 Rolex Awards for Enterprise.

Ningaloo Reef, in WA, is one of the premier spots in the world for watching whale sharks, which are also seen along the Great Barrier Reef. Through 2007-08 Brad is using his Rolex Award money to criss-cross the world to other whale shark sites as far apart as Mexico and Mozambique, the Seychelles, Christmas Island, the Galapagos, the Maldives, Taiwan, Thailand, Indonesia, Kenya, Honduras and Belize, training local marine and tourism managers in how to identify and conserve the giant fish.

The whale shark is one of only three sharks that are filter-feeders, using gill rakers to scoop up krill (shrimp), small fish and other tiny ocean life for its sustenance. It has never been known to attack humans. Tagged individuals have been tracked for 13,000 kilometres across the Pacific, and 3000 kilometres in the Indian Ocean. It is sighted at more than 100 places around the globe, yet remains so scarce almost nothing is known of its abundance, breeding habits or habitat preferences. What we do know is that it has an uncanny instinct for locating food concentrations.


The whale shark has few natural enemies, though orcas and predatory sharks may attack young fish. Now, however, the whale shark is suffering the insatiable human appetite for seafood.

Since his first encounter in 1995, in Ningaloo Marine Park, Norman has striven to uncover all he can about this majestic animal, whose ancestry extends back 400 million years. “My first encounter seemed quite surreal. There was this huge, living thing coming directly towards me. My eyes were popping out of my head. I almost swallowed my snorkel. I was screaming silently to myself in excitement,” he recalls. “Yet, oddly, I wasn’t afraid. I just floated there, too amazed to swim after him.”

Conveniently, the whale shark’s economical 3-5km/h cruising speed is perfect for observation. Though diving as deep as 1500 metres, it often swims near the surface. Its placid temperament makes it safe compared with other big sharks. Yet it can also be dynamic: “I once observed seven in an area where there was a huge swarm of krill; a real soup of food in the water. They were charging through it, mouths open, thrashing around. That was a big adrenalin rush. I never felt frightened, but I did keep my arms down and made myself small.

“Even with something as big as a whale shark, you’re not afraid – and nor is it. It is a calming experience. You feel at one,” he says.

Swimming alongside its head, Norman has seen its little eye turn, observing him – a glimmer of acknowledgement. “Maybe it just thinks I’m a big remora (sucker fish),” he laughs. Nonetheless, he respects the shark’s brute power, and has assisted in the drafting of guidelines for divers and tour operators worldwide on how to behave around whale sharks.

Norman’s love of the ocean was born on the golden beaches of Perth, on Australia’s Indian Ocean coastline, where he body-surfed as a youngster. This led to diving and, via a science degree, to a deep interest in marine conservation, which he has pursued as a researcher and fisheries management consultant.

His encounter with the whale sharks of Ningaloo was a life-altering experience. The shark was an unknown, and there was little money for its study or conservation. Norman survived hand-to-mouth on sporadic grants, and funded much research himself. Burning the midnight oil, he mounted national and international campaigns for the whale shark’s conservation, emerging as a global expert on the animal and its needs. He helped authorities develop plans for its protection, wrote scientific reports and provided information for divers and school children.

Many mysteries of the whale shark remain to be solved. While young males gather at Ningaloo, no one knows where the females collect or where the sharks breed. The key to studying their thin, dispersed and cryptic demographics lay in identifying individuals. Following a clue provided by an experienced fisherman, Norman’s painstaking research revealed that every whale shark has a pattern of white spots on its body as individually distinctive as a human fingerprint. This gave him the idea of using underwater camera images as a practical, non-invasive way to identify individuals. In 1999, he set up the Ecocean Whale Shark Photo-identification Library on the Internet; a global project to record sightings and images.


Despite the growing body of information, there was no easy way to compare shots of whale sharks taken from different angles, and under varying light conditions. In 2002, a US computer engineer and fellow diver, Jason Holmberg offered to help organise and automate the Ecocean database. He discussed the photo-ID problem with a friend, NASA-affiliated astronomer Zaven Arzoumanian, whose colleague, Gijs Nelemans pointed out that a technique used by Hubble Space Telescope scientists for mapping star patterns, known as the Groth algorithm, could be used to identify whale sharks from the unique patterns of white spots on the shark’s hide. It took months of calculations and computer programming to refine the algorithm for use on a living creature, but in the end they gained a breakthrough for biology: a reliable way to identify individuals in virtually any spotted animal population, without tagging or harassing them. More than 500 whale sharks have since been identified and added to the database.

For survival, whale sharks depend on huge outbursts of tiny sea life which, in turn, reflect the condition of the oceans and their bio-productivity. Since they travel thousands of kilometres to collect food, studying these fish can serve as an indicator of ocean health – and of the human impact on it.

This is, indeed, high, planet-scale science. But at another scale, individual divers worldwide can now follow Norman’s simple guidelines for photographing whale sharks and logging their images, activities and locations on the Ecocean site. In this way, we can all take part in real science. On Ecocean, contributed photos are automatically catalogued, compared and, if possible, identified as belonging to a known shark. Each new image helps Norman compile a global map of where whale sharks live and their migratory patterns. Contributors receive notice by email of all past and further sightings of ‘their’ shark. Together, the images are helping to build a global picture of the abundance, health, range and fluctuations of Its flesh, fins and body parts sell in Asian fish markets for $US18 a kilo or more the whale shark population. “Just about anyone with a disposable underwater camera can now play a part in helping to conserve whale sharks, and so help to monitor the health of the oceans,” Norman explains. “It gives people a direct stake in whale shark stewardship.”

With the Rolex Award money, Brad Norman is devoting two years full-time to his project, training local authorities, tourism operators and 20 research assistants around the Pacific, Atlantic and Indian oceans to observe, record and protect whale sharks. In this way, he will develop whale shark photography as a significant tool for conservation.

Norman plans also to explain to those who hunt the shark that there is more to be gained by leaving it alive. Ningaloo’s whale sharks draw more than 5000 visitors a year, mainly from April to June, generating ecotourism worth an estimated US$10 million, thus proving a live whale shark earns far more than a dead one.

“The whale shark is worth saving – and we can do something about it,” Brad says. “It is a big, beautiful and charismatic animal, and not dangerous. It is a perfect flagship for the health of the oceans.”

To view Brad Norman’s whale shark photo library, go to:

Norman’s project has been made possible through funds provided by the Rolex Awards for Enterprise. These aim to encourage a spirit of enterprise in visionary individuals around the globe by providing the financial support and recognition they need to implement innovative, working projects that advance human knowledge and well-being. They are awarded in five areas: science and medicine; technology and innovation; exploration and discovery; the environment and cultural heritage.

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