Engineer Graham Wilhelm joined National Geographic Emerging Explorer Brad Norman on an expedition to Ningaloo Reef, Australia’s longest fringing reef. Their goal was to deploy Crittercams on whale sharks to get a glimpse of the sharks’ underwater world and to better understand their behavior along the reef.
Like most people, Wilhelm had never seen a whale shark. He worked on the Crittercams for about six months leading up to the expedition. “The Crittercam is a camera plus multisensor platform. It can go up to 1,000 meters deep, and it can record up to 16 hours of high-definition video.” He prepared the cameras as well as the mechanism that would attach the camera to the dorsal fin of the whale shark.
Norman is a marine conservationist and whale shark expert and highly qualified to execute the deployment. Wilhelm says, “[Norman] knows [the sharks’] tendencies—when they’re going to dive, when they’re going to stay up on the surface, when they’re going to accelerate. He really has it down, getting these cameras on the sharks.”
Norman began swimming with whale sharks in 1995. He thinks of them as “gentle giants,” so he had no reservations about swimming right up to one of the sharks and putting the camera on its dorsal fin. Cinching the camera onto the fin has to be done quickly and deliberately because they will immediately swim away when touched. Norman nailed it on his first try, securing the camera to a 20-foot shark.
Mysterious Gentle Giants
Scientists discovered whale sharks in 1828, but much about their lives remains a mystery—including where they give birth and where they migrate. Norman says, “Ningaloo is a stop-off point, with a lot of food in the area that the young ones use to build up their strength and size and confidence and perhaps make longer journeys to uncharted waters.” His team has recently tested and refined an innovative attachment system for satellite tags, and they hope that when it’s implemented in the coming years, it will help answer the mystery of whale shark migration to and from Ningaloo.
How You Can Get Involved
Norman and his organization, ECOCEAN, have been researching the whale shark population off Ningaloo for more than 20 years. With the help of anyone who submits their photos, the Wildbook for Whale Sharks Internet database has identified more than 1,100 individual whale sharks. Two-thirds of the whale shark sightings every year are of returning whale sharks that have been seen previously at Ningaloo.
Be sure to check out the rest of the Expedition Raw series here.