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Whale shark research and monitoring

Whale sharks are difficult to study because, despite their huge size, they tend to be solitary, travel great distances, and appear sporadically.

To better protect whale sharks it is crucial that we increase our understanding of their biology, ecology, movement patterns and life history.

Photo ID

Whale sharks have characteristic patterns of white spots and stripes on a dark blue background on their dorsal surface.

  • Each whale shark has its own unique pattern that can be used, along with size, sex and scar marks, to identify individual whale sharks.
  • Scientists use whale shark spot patterns to establish estimates on whale shark numbers, their movement patterns, and morphological changes of individuals over time.
  • The ECOCEAN photo identification library stores, analyses and matches photos to document individual whale sharks that visit Ningaloo Marine Park each season, including those that return over many years.
    • By submitting your whale shark photos, you are helping scientists to better understand and protect these amazing fish.


Short and long-term movements and behaviours of whale sharks are being investigated using telemetry. This involves attaching a radio or satellite transmitter to the whale shark, then tracking the shark's movement over a period of time. Many different types of tag have been used:

  • Acoustic tag data helps us understand the short-term movements, residency rates and natural behaviour of whale sharks, and gives us information on swimming speeds, depth profiles and positions in relation to associated features in the surrounding water column and ocean floor. Data retrieved from acoustic tags has shown that sharks follow ocean ridges where plankton accumulate and that they also follow the vertical migration of plankton to the surface at night.
  • Satellite tag data enables the observation of broad-scale movements of whale sharks away from Ningaloo Reef, and has shown that whale sharks can travel thousands of kilometres and also dive to depths greater than 1700 metres.

All tagging is carried out under permit and within animal ethics guidelines.

Tissue sampling

Scientists collect tissue samples annually from whale sharks at Ningaloo to contribute to global studies on whale shark genetics.  They can determine whether Ningaloo whale sharks are related to those in other areas of the world.  These samples can also help determine what whale sharks are feeding on, by analysing the fatty acids in the tissues.