St Helena's sightings of mating whale sharks caused a stir at the International Whale Shark conference held in Atlanta, Georgia, USA last month.
Marine Conservation Officer of EMD, Elizabeth Clingham took part in the third International Whale Shark Conference, and travelled the distance to give a presentation. She also spent time at the Atlanta Aquarium. The conference was designed to explore and disseminate, scientific and conservation, advances relating to the world's largest fish species.
Whale sharks are distributed throughout the tropical oceans of the world, they are gentle giants, that filter-feed on plankton.
The most significant information to come out of the visit was the realisation of how rare St Helena's sightings are of whale sharks mating. "We had two records of mating," said Elizabeth, "that is first in the world to ever be known." The sightings were recorded from two separate years.
The significance of this ground breaking news was not realised and not part of Elizabeth's presentation at the conference. "It was put to the researcher we were collaborating with. It was so exciting, that he couldn't sit down!" she said.
This information will now be published internationally, "That will put us on the map when it comes to whale shark research."
There were 75 delegates from 20 countries who attended and Elizabeth returned with a thick wad of business cards. "The audience cheered at the presentation, which none of the other presenters had," she smiled.
Whale sharks were thought to be a solitary species, but recent research has shown that they can and do form large aggregations close to the coast when conditions are right. Studies have been aided by advances in tagging technology that are revealing the secret lives of whale sharks in ways never before possible.
As a result of the conference visit, St Helena can now take part in providing tagging data. Elizabeth was approached by Research Section of the Georgia Atlantic Aquarium, who donated two satellite tagging devices, to mount onto whale sharks. MOT Marine Laboratories based in Florida are also collaborating and donated two further tagging devices. "I've had a few crash-training courses," said Elizabeth when asked about physically tagging the whale sharks. "Basically you use a lance," she explained that will penetrate the skin. "In theory, I know what to do, in practice, we'll see!"
The Marine Section will now continue their research and gain further detailed information on whale shark sightings.