From the Stars to the Seas: Pairing Citizen Science with NASA Technology for Whale Shark Conservation

This post is part of our Divers’ series. We encourage readers to continue the conversation by adding their own comments, question or concerns on our Facebook page. You’ll find links to other posts at the end of this story. 

A whale shark, Earth’s largest fish, feeding among tuna off Utila, Honduras. Photo: Simon Pierce/Wild Me

When Jason Holmberg saw his first whale shark 15 years ago while scuba diving off the coast of Africa, he had no idea it would lead him to co-found a nonprofit that pairs citizen science with NASA technology to collect data on whale sharks around the world.

The photo collecting project, called Wildbook for Whale Sharks, helped put whale sharks on the endangered species list, and the technology it employs is now used to study cheetahs, manta rays, and other species by research institutions across the globe.

Whale sharks are the largest fish in the world and can grow to more than 40 feet long and more than 65,000 pounds. Despite their massive size, they are harmless “filter feeders” that move slowly through tropical waters, scooping up plankton with gaping mouths.

After that first sighting near Djibouti, Holmberg became intrigued by the species. So he took a job tagging whale sharks with a biologist in Baja, California.

While there, he discovered that although whale sharks are gentle and easy-to-see, they are also constantly on the move, making them difficult for scientists to follow. At the time, this meant only about 1% of tagged whale sharks were ever re-sighted.

“It was a highly inefficient process and impossible to do long term population predictions,” Holmberg said.

This left scientists with many questions about the species, such as their migration routes and life spans outside captivity, and no one had ever observed them mating or having their young.

“Without this information, conservationists could not learn if human activity was impacting whale sharks, or devise strategies to protect them,” Holmberg said.

From the Stars to the Seas

A better research strategy was needed, and Holmberg thought the pale yellow spots that covered the whale sharks’ bodies could be the key.

The spots were configured in unique designs, he noticed, that might be used like fingerprints to distinguish one whale shark from another.

These left-side flanks of the whale shark form the “tag” or unique fingerprint of spots used to identify each animal individually. Photo credit: Simon Pierce/Wild Me

Being an information architect engineer, Holmberg thought that if he could find a way to collect photos of these spot patterns, a computer program could analyze, recognize, and track them.

So he reached out to two friends, Australian whale shark biologist Brad Norman and NASA astronomer Zaven Arzoumanian, for help.

Together, they designed a citizen science protocol that uses volunteers to collect underwater photos of the spots located behind whale shark’s gills.

“The photos are added to a web-based photo-identification library, along with other information like where and when the whales were observed,” Holmberg said.

To analyze the photos, the team took an old computer algorithm that is used by the Hubble telescope to analyze star patterns and adapted it to analyze whale shark spot patterns and compare them to photos already in the library.

In this way, Holmberg and his partners devised a way to visually “tag” and “re-sight” whale sharks across time and geography, and in 2008, Wildbook for Whale Sharks was born.

Since then, 5,200 scuba diving, snorkeling, sport fishing, and cruise shipping citizen scientists armed with cameras have made almost 38,000 whale shark sightings that helped identify more than 8,000 individual sharks.

“Thanks to GoPro cameras and Selfie Sticks, 2016 was the biggest bumper crop of data yet,” Holmberg said.

Conservation Through Science and Outreach

The data, which are checked for accuracy by 120 researchers and volunteers, are freely available on the Wildbook for Whale Shark website and has been used and published by scientists in numerous scientific journals and reports.

In addition, each whale shark has its own Wildbook web page, similar to a social media profile, which includes photos of the individual fish and of the researchers who are connected with it.

Citizen scientists also receive emails thanking them for their submissions and updating them when their whale sharks are re-sighted.

“We return the gift of data with the gift of knowledge,” Holmberg said.

In addition, other visitors to the website can “adopt” a whale shark, give it a nickname, and receive updates about it.

A swimmer and snorkeller together off Isla Mueres, Mexico. Photo credit: Simon Pierce/Wild Me

“Engaging so many volunteers in the search for whale sharks has helped build a sense of mystery about the species,” Holmberg said.

“This excitement has transformed local economies in some countries, such as the Philippines, from whale shark fishing to whale shark tourism.  In addition, the combination of science and outreach has led to increased protections, including everything from changes to boating regulations to moving whale sharks’ listing from “threatened” to “endangered” under the Endangered Species Act,” Holmberg said.

Wild Me Expansion

Holmberg and his partners realized that other researches were dealing with the same challenges they had, so they started an offshoot nonprofit called Wild Me to expand the use of the Wildbook technical platform.

Through Wild Me, citizen science projects are now using the once star gazing algorithm to analyze markings on ragged tooth nurse sharks, Hector’s dolphins, humpback whales, right whales, sperm whales, manta rays, Samaii Ringed Seals, cheetahs, and even polar bears.

“Through these projects,” Holmberg said, “he hopes there will still be whale sharks and other species for his kids to dive with and enjoy years from now when they are grown.”

Kristin Butler dedicates her Scuba Series in remembrance of her beloved mother, Marilyn Butler, who passed along to Kristin a deep love for science and nature along with a pair of pink scuba diving fins.  Other posts in this series include: Reef Check Underwater Science and The Mystery of Manta Rays.

Want more citizen science? Check out SciStarter’s Project Finder! With 1100+ citizen science projects spanning every field of research, task and age group, there’s something for everyone!

Categories: Citizen Science, Guest Contributor, Ocean & Water, Project Profile

Tags: , , ,

About the Author

Kristin Butler

Kristin Butler

Kristin is a freelance journalist and Outreach and Communications Director for the San Francisco Bay Bird Observatory. She holds a B.A. degree in Political Science from Whitman College and an M.S. in Mass Communications from San Jose State University. Kristin has worked as an environmental reporter for The Argus newspaper and was a monthly contributor to Bay Area BusinessWoman News. She's also directed communications and fundraising initiatives for a number of environmental and youth serving organizations, including Earthjustice and Girls Inc.