How Your Vacation Photos Could Help Save the Freaking Whale Shark

The Citizen's Guide to the Future
Feb. 12 2013 1:39 PM

How Your Vacation Photos Could Help Save the Freaking Whale Shark

Whale_shark_Georgia_aquarium
A whale shark at a Georgia aquarium

Photo by Zac Wolf via Wikimedia Commons

Prior to the 1980s, there were fewer than 350 confirmed sightings of whale sharks (Rhincodon typus) worldwide. But by next year, that annoying girl on your Facebook feed who seems to do nothing but go on vacation will probably have a whole album full of whale shark pics. And that’s just what might save the beautiful bastards from extinction.

Whale sharks are thought to be quite rare, but scientists have long struggled to estimate their true numbers. Individual animals can be identified through unique markings behind each gill and an inventory of scars, but the fact that the creatures seem to migrate thousands of miles over the course of a year makes it difficult to keep pace with them. (Help us help you, whale sharks.) They are officially listed as facing a high risk of extinction in the wild, where they are vulnerable to collisions with boats and lovers of shark fin soup. 

Fortunately, tourists love to take pictures of sea monsters. It probably helps that the world’s largest fish enjoys warm waters, slow surface swimming, and a diet that looks nothing like a human being. And while they react when touched, whale sharks usually pay little mind to swimmers and divers, likely because their massive size—they’re about the length of a school bus and weigh 20 tons—means they fail to see us as a threat. (Hubris: not just for humans.) This matter-of-factness also means any old tourist with a decent point-and-click can capture clear enough images to use for identification.

Thanks to a study by Tim Davies, a researcher at Imperial College London, scientists are now confident these amateur images can be used to identify the whereabouts of individual whale sharks on a global scale. Utilizing pattern recognition software and photo management tools, crowd-sourced pics from sites like Flickr were successfully used to obtain IDs in 85 percent of cases. The ability to recognize and log sightings of individual whale sharks is huge because it allows scientists in, say, Australia to keep tabs on animals that appear locally for a only a few weeks a year. (Over the course of 36 months, one whale shark took a world tour of over 8,000 miles.) Checking positive IDs against other images also gives us a more accurate representation of just how many of these filter-feeding crazies are really out there. Plus, flipping through the ECOCEAN Whale Shark Photo-identification Library is like a marine biologist’s version of Facebook. (You’ve gotta see how much weight #716AC put on this winter!)

Of course, the more images they collect, the more information scientists will potentially be able to use to piece together the animals’ lifespans, migration patterns, geographic distribution, and many other aspects of the whale shark’s life. Much about the giants is unknown. We’ve never even seen them mate or give birth. (And don’t think we haven’t tried.)

Now it’s up to us to upload all our awesome pics. Thus far, the project has gathered more than 20,000 sightings from 3,400-some contributors. So if you have some whale shark glamour shots, please consider donating 30 seconds of your life for the future of a vulnerable species. The scientists will even overlook the odd duck-lipped selfie.

Best of all, you need not go on fancy vacations to get your gold star. Using a program called sharkGrid, ECOCEAN lets you donate your computer’s free time and RAM to power the great whale shark identification hootenanny. Once you set it up, you can go in the other room and get your Downton Abbey on while sharkGrid uses your Internet to call in Captain Planet.

This is just one more example of how the Internet and social media allow everyday citizens to participate in heavy-hitting science and conservation. And yes, facilitating the preservation of a magnificent aqua beast is grounds for a little Facebooking, so feel free to let loose.

Though I doubt your passive-aggressive attempt to one-up Annoying Girl will ruin her hang-gliding tour of Guatemala.

Future Tense is a partnership of SlateNew America, and Arizona State University.

Jason Bittel serves up science for picky eaters on his website, BittelMeThis.com. He lives in Pittsburgh. Follow him on Twitter.