Des solutions pour la planète

Brad Norman, the whale shark champion

The world-renowned Australian scientist is working hard to discover the secrets of the world’s largest fish and prevent its disappearance.

By Françoise Blind Kempinski
Published in June 2021icon-clockTime to read: 2min 58s

For Brad Norman, everything really took off in 1995. Aged 28 at the time, the Australian experienced a profound encounter when he discovered his first whale shark in the waters of Ningaloo Reef, a coral reef 1,500 kilometres north of Perth that has since become a global hot spot for diving with these sea giants. As a child, Norman had considered studying to become a vet, probably inspired by the business of his parents, who ran a cattle feed store. Quickly, however, his attraction for the ocean took the upper hand and guided his studies in another direction. His striking encounter with the shark would determine his life’s work: “Whale sharks are my passion. By working for their conservation, I hope to accelerate efforts to protect endangered species and their habitat,” the biologist says. For more than a quarter of a century, Brad Norman has worked tirelessly to protect the world’s largest fish, the Rhincodon typus becoming the sole object of his quest.

Feared for belonging to the shark family and for its size (about 14 metres long), this little known and completely harmless fish is nonetheless being destroyed in the same way as its other fellow species within the same genus. Among other things, its fins are removed to decorate Chinese wedding tables. Its flesh, too, is popular in Asia, where it is called “tofu fish”. Forced to rise to the surface to feed, this plankton and krill “hoover” filters the water by opening its vast mouth to its widest – creating moments that delight photographers but expose the shark to collisions with boats. “Currently, there is no credible estimate of the number of individuals remaining in the world,” the specialist explains. But there is a consensus that the species has been reduced by half over the past 75 years.

Currently, there is no credible estimate of the number of individuals remaining in the world.Brad Norman

Brad Norman fixes a tracking beacon to a whale shark.

Mapping shark skin like the stars

One of Brad Norman’s major achievements has been to alert the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN) in 1999 to the dangers faced by the species, whose status on the global red list was changed from “vulnerable” to “endangered” in 2016. In another victory, the whale shark was granted full protection in Australian waters from 2001. Globally, however, it is only preserved in 10% of the territorial waters in which it lives.

Since graduating in marine science from Murdoch University in Perth and completing his first volunteer research work for the Department of Parks and Wildlife (DPAW) in Ningaloo, the biologist has continued his fight, being persuasive enough to rally other scientists to the cause and to form unusual cross-disciplinary alliances – all of which have led to significant discoveries and breakthroughs. Bringing together partners and universities from around the world, Brad Norman – who is affiliated to Murdoch University, but without a PhD or a paid academic position – must show inventiveness and tenacity to advance his cause. And although he recently confided that he would eventually like to complete his PhD, which would open the doors to public funding, he does not, however, want to say more about this obviously sensitive subject.

Meanwhile, Norman’s method is working extremely well. In 1995, he discovered that the constellations of white dots on the skin of whale sharks are unique to each individual and that their mapping, therefore, makes it possible to tell them apart. Given responsibility for a mission to assess the impact of Ningaloo’s tourists on his favourite animals, he began to photograph each fish he came across under the water, focusing particularly on the spots just behind the gills, near the pectoral fin. He then collected all these photos together in a database called Ecocean, which is also enriched by images taken by amateur divers, who have joined him in increasing numbers in the adventure. Managed by the US NGO WildMe, it was renamed the Wildbook for Whale Sharks in the late 2000s, but is still led by Brad Norman. To date, more than 13,085 sharks have been identified by some 8,860 citizens from around 60 countries. It is a remarkable success story.

NASA to the rescue

But, in 2003, Brad Norman was still completing the identification work himself, which was both laborious and error-prone. That same year, he decided to put Ecocean online. Jason Holmberg, another whale shark lover and a professional computer programmer, came across his research and offered to help him build a high-performance database. The next step, after compiling the images, was to distinguish each whale shark efficiently. The American Jason Holmberg then asked Zaven Arzoumanian – one of his university friends and an astronomer at NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center in Maryland – for help. All three of them were enthusiastic about the project: if NASA’s computer algorithm could recognise stars, why couldn’t it be used to identify the giants of the seas? When applied to its new subject, the space software worked wonders – a publication in 2005 in the Journal of Applied Ecology attested to a 90% level of accuracy.

One success led to another, and in 2006, Brad Norman was recognised with a Rolex Award, which included a prize of €100,000. “It was a huge boost that enabled a major expansion of our work on a global scale. The international exposure that we enjoyed was fundamental to raising awareness around the world of the threats to the whale shark,” the biologist acknowledges. Researchers and the general public in the areas concerned (Mozambique, Galapagos, Thailand, Mexico, Seychelles, United Arab Emirates, Philippines, Taiwan, Indonesia and the Maldives) have become active contributors to the Wildbook for Whale Sharks.
Brad Norman and Rory Wilson, who was also a Rolex Award winner in 2006, have developed a tracking beacon to track whale sharks.

It was a huge boost that enabled a major expansion of our work on a global scale. The international exposure that we enjoyed was fundamental to raising awareness around the world of the threats to the whale shark.Brad Norman

The Rolex effect did not stop there. At the Rolex Award ceremony, Brad Norman met Rory Wilson. A zoologist and professor at the Department of Life Sciences at the University of Swansea in Wales, Wilson had invented a lightweight data logger that could be attached to animals to record their daily movements freely. Rory Wilson thus developed a micro-beacon to attach to the whale shark’s dorsal fin, which revealed hitherto secret behaviour patterns. Their work was rewarded with two prizes: Brad Norman received the West Australian Premier's Outreach Award in 2009 and was named an Ocean Hero by National Geographic in 2010.

Resourcefulness and perseverance

At another Rolex Award ceremony in 2012 – in India, this time – Brad Norman met Mark Kendall. A biomedical engineer, Mark Kendall was recognised for a device he created that enables vaccines to be inoculated through a patch on the skin, without a syringe or needle – a process ideally suited to developing countries. At the time, the biologist Brad Norman was wondering how to attach satellite tracking beacons to whale sharks that would last long enough to accompany them throughout their migration, which takes around a year. The two men pooled their scientific ballistics knowledge, their understanding of the skin and their shark expertise to tag the giant fish in an efficient and non-invasive way.

Resourcefulness and perseverance are two key driving forces in Brad Norman’s life. And they are both needed to find the funding to eventually lead to what he calls his “Holy Grail”: “Identifying the elusive breeding and birthing areas of the whale shark – currently unknown, which would allow these places to become sanctuaries and to protect the species.” This is no easy task, considering that these gentle fish can stay at depths of between 1,500 and 2,000 metres for months at a time.

What if his kind contributors get tired of everything being about the whale shark? Brad Norman considers that impossible, explaining: “There are still so many mysteries that need to be solved, including: What is their breeding rate? How many of them return to the same place each year, how long do they stay there, how quickly do they grow, what percentage of new sharks are there, are they affected by climate conditions...? The data that is collected has enormous potential, depending on how it is processed. The more we learn about them, the more we realise what remains to be discovered.” Since last year, the researcher has attached video cameras to his totem fish, filming about two and a half hours a day. In addition, he is working on a logbook describing the life of the specimens over 24 hours.

Nevertheless, the search for funding, which is crucial to his research, remains a demanding activity for the Australian, in addition to his other pursuits: diving with his favourite animals (at least two months of the year), analysing the data collected over several seasons, publishing scientific papers and raising awareness among schoolchildren and the public throughout Australia and possibly elsewhere. “Whale sharks are a standard-bearer for a shared desire to maintain a healthy marine environment and to create a sense of ownership of this common good among as many people as possible,” the scientist enthuses.

Today, Brad Norman is very happy. The stars have aligned for him: the weather is fine, the electronic equipment is functioning as it should, the humans are in good shape, the sharks are docile and numerous, the beacons have all worked very well, and the data collected will be a great source of new analyses… Time and again.

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