Stars of the deep
For more than a quarter of a century, Brad Norman has pursued the ocean’s mightiest fish, the mysterious whale shark, with fascination, love and a single-minded dedication to its protection.
In 2006, the Australian marine scientist received a Rolex Award for Enterprise that has enabled him to build a world-first citizen science project to observe, reveal and record these rare and cryptic giants in order to conserve them.
“The first time I jumped in the water and swam with a whale shark, seeing and experiencing, being alongside the biggest fish in the sea, it really took my breath away,” he says. “From early on, I believed I could really make a difference to preserve this species.”
Observing whale sharks off Ningaloo Reef in Western Australia, Norman was intrigued by the white ‘stars’ that mottle the beast’s grey skin: no two fish seemed to have the same pattern. With mathematics employed in the Hubble Space Telescope, he has helped pioneer a unique system to identify and record any individual whale shark photographed by an observer anywhere in the world.
Today this database contains 75,000 sighting records of 12,000 individual sharks, photographed by 9,000 citizen scientists, researchers and volunteers in 54 countries, representing one of the largest marine wildlife datasets of a single species. This has helped to identify whale shark hotspots around the world.
The project is emblematic of Rolex’s Perpetual Planet initiative that supports individuals and organizations who are using exploration and research to find ways to protect the natural world.
I want to find out more about our oceans and the species within so that we can conserve them for generations to come.
“Whale sharks are mysterious. They’re a gentle giant but also a species we know so little about,” Norman explains. “I want to find out more about our oceans and the species within so that we can conserve them for generations to come.” He admits that he still thrills at the sight of one of these vast beasts looming upward from the depths.
Norman says the Rolex Award advanced his research by enabling him to partner with another 2006 Laureate, Professor Rory Wilson, in a scientific first that is opening a fascinating window into the secret life of the whale shark.
By equipping the giant fish with Wilson’s “daily diary” electronic tag, the two scientists were able to observe, for the first time, the behaviour of the whale shark when out of human sight. Since then, Norman has fitted whale sharks with satellite tags, cameras and sensors to study their habits, shedding new light on their population and ecology.
The use of high-tech satellite tags has enabled Norman to track individual fish migrating across thousands of kilometres and he hopes the emerging pattern will eventually reveal where the shark’s breeding grounds are located so they can be protected.
Besides his scientific contribution, Norman is a leader in global efforts to conserve the whale shark. He prepared reports that resulted in the fish being included on the International Union for the Conservation of Nature (IUCN) Red List – initially as vulnerable, then as endangered. He also helped drive efforts to outlaw trade in whale shark products and has advised several countries on policies to protect their whale sharks.
In addition to recruiting thousands of citizen scientists to the cause of studying the shark, Norman has developed online educational campaigns focused on ocean conservation and targeted at schoolchildren. His Whale Shark Race Around the World competition allows individual schools to adopt a tagged shark and follow it through the oceans via satellite coverage, to see which one covers the greatest distance in a set period of time.
“It’s all about building interest, drive and desire among the new generation,” Norman affirms. “So it’s a case of trying to educate and show people the beauty of our natural environment and encourage them to be more aware and more driven to protect it.”
The Rolex Award has been very influential in building the profile of the project and hopefully helping us to get to the point where we’re actually going to save a species.
“The Rolex Award has been very influential in building the profile of the project and hopefully helping us to get to the point where we’re actually going to save a species.”