West Australian whale shark scientist Brad Norman looked to the stars when it came to developing incredible new ways to help preserve the endangered species.
Brad Norman does for a living what most people have on their bucket list – he swims with whale sharks. And, he says, it never loses its magic. “I look forward to every time I have a chance to swim with the big fish,” says the West Australian scientist. He reckons he’s done it thousands of times but, he adds, “I still remember the day I swam with Stumpy – Ningaloo’s most famous whale shark – more than two decades ago. The exhilaration of seeing a creature the size of a bus emerging from the blue and swimming straight at me will never be forgotten.”
Today, Norman is behind an impressive citizen science project that monitors whale sharks with a goal to their preservation, a mission that’s earned him an Order of Australia and a Rolex Award for Enterprise. “I’d been working on whale shark photoidentification since 1995 and was able to prove that the pattern of spots on the skin of each shark was unique to each individual, and that photos could be used to monitor the species,” says Norman, CEO of the notfor-profit Ecocean. “I started collecting hundreds of images but matching these by eye became challenging.”
Knowing that “the pattern on the skin of the whale shark is white spots on a dark background – like stars in the night sky” and that NASA Hubble Space Telescope scientists use a pattern-matching algorithm to map stars, Norman partnered with information architect Jason Holmberg and NASA astrophysicist Zaven Arzoumanian to adapt the algorithm. This meant that any person who photographed a whale shark could add it to a whaleshark.org database and the experts could monitor the species right around the world.
Wanting to go even deeper, Norman has been studying the difference between natural whale shark behaviour and their behaviour around humans, in partnership with fellow Rolex Award for Enterprise winner, zoologist Rory Wilson (the 2021 winners of the program, which launched in 1976, were announced in June). While the data gathered in this study is being reviewed, Norman says, “Our work reveals behaviours important to the shark’s survival.”
Which brings us back to Stumpy. “He is my favourite shark. We’ve recorded him returning to Ningaloo almost every year since I first swam with him. And in May he was seen once again,” says Norman, adding that the visit provided an opportunity to put an underwater video camera on Stumpy. “We saw exactly what he was seeing when he swam to the depths at Ningaloo.”