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Our whale shark research work has just been featured by National Geographic! There’s an excellent video (below) and article: “Why the Worlds Biggest Sharks Love Mafia Island.” Check it out.I’ll wait…The photos and video were taken by conservation photographer, videographer and all-around great guy Steve De Neef who joined Chris Rohner, Alex Watts and I (with honourable mention to Jesse Cochran) during our field season at Mafia Island in November 2016. Mafia is a medium-sized island off the Tanzanian coast, a short flight (or long ferry ride) from Dar es Salaam. Rather, the name “Mafia” is thought to be derived from the Swahili “mahali pa afya” which translates to “healthy dwelling place”.
Although the sharks often stay inshore for longer, we realised after a couple of years that their high residency meant we could get a good idea of what was going on over a shorter field season.
At the moment there’s no solid estimate of the global whale shark population.
There aren’t too many places where you repeatedly see the same whale sharks, but Chris was literally able to name the Mafia contingent. We usually stay on Mafia over November and December.
Whale shark sightings tend to be good over that period, the weather is normally settled, and it’s a nice quiet time on the island.
Because the sharks are so resident, it’s really important to minimise the risk of these local threats.
We’ve been creating maps of where people tend to fish, and where whale sharks spend most of their time on the surface, so we can identify areas where interactions are most likely to occur.
Because the sharks are only seasonally at the surface, and generally in a predictable area, the prospects are good for creating a managed area where sharks can feed safely without impeding local fishing practices too much.
The biggest direct threat to whale sharks at this stage comes from a fishery in southern Chinese waters, where several hundred sharks may be caught each year.
However, our electronic tagging work has shown that they don’t swim away far away outside these months; they just move further out into the bay and spend less time at the surface.