ATLANTA (February 29, 2016) – This past December a team of Georgia Aquarium researchers, led by Dr. Alistair Dove, director of research and conservation at Georgia Aquarium, set out on a journey to St. Helena Island, one of the most remote inhabited islands in the world to study the world’s biggest fish: the whale shark.

St. Helena is located in the South Atlantic Ocean and covers only 47 square miles of rugged and rocky terrain is known to many as the location for Napoleon Bonaparte’s exile in 1815. St. Helena only recently came to scientific attention, but with the help of the Darwin Initiative, Georgia Aquarium’s partners in the St. Helena Government, Mote Marine Laboratory, and the Marine Megafauna Foundation, researchers from the Aquarium were able to travel to St. Helena and help study whale sharks.

Whale sharks are listed as “Vulnerable” on the International Union for the Conservation of Nature’s Red List. Georgia Aquarium is the only aquarium in the western hemisphere to display whale sharks, which provides the opportunity to study these animal’s growth, behavior, health and genetics in a setting that complements the research initiatives in the field, like those in St. Helena. The first research trip to St. Helena Georgia Aquarium participated in took place in December 2014.

“We started these expeditions because we think St. Helena may play a vital role as a mating ground for whale sharks. Mating behaviors of whale sharks have never been documented,” said Dr. Alistair Dove. “Our main goal of the 2015-2016 expedition was to characterize them, how they use the island, and where they go when they leave, and of course to stay ever vigilant for signs of mating behavior.”

The team used a variety of research techniques, including computer-aided photographic identification, laser calipers to measure size, and several different types of tracking tags to help determine where whale sharks come from and where they go. They also worked with locals to install an acoustic array, a network of underwater hydrophones around the island that listens for tags put on whale sharks and other species.  During their time in St. Helena the team tagged over 30 whale sharks and photographed dozens more to help learn more about this elusive species.

Georgia Aquarium also worked closely with research partners on the expedition, including the Marine Section of the St. Helena Government, the Mexican NGO Ch’ooj Ajail AC, and other partners from the Marine Megafauna Foundation and Mote Marine Laboratory who helped materially support the trip.  

The group returned to Atlanta at the end of January, but their work continues compiling data collected on their trip and finding answers to questions about whale sharks that remain unanswered. While whale shark mating behaviors have not yet been documented by researchers, they continue to learn more about their migratory patterns through the tagging studies and identify new whale sharks through the Wildbook global database of whale shark sightings.

Real-time screen grab of whale shark locations via whalesharkwatch.org.

Follow along with some of the animals that were tagged and see their location in real time on Twitter by following @Wheres_Domino, and at whalesharkwatch.org.

Photos from the group’s time in St. Helena can be found here. To find out even more about the research expedition to St. Helena, the scientific team, and whale sharks, follow along March 1-5 during Expedition Week on Georgia Aquarium’s Blog.

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ABOUT GEORGIA AQUARIUM

Georgia Aquarium in Atlanta is a 501(c)(3) non-profit organization that contains more than 10 million gallons of water and has the largest collection of aquatic animals. Georgia Aquarium’s mission is to be a scientific institution that entertains and educates, features exhibits and programs of the highest standards, and offers engaging and exciting guest experiences that promote the conservation of aquatic biodiversity throughout the world. Georgia Aquarium is an accredited member of the Association of Zoos and Aquariums and the Alliance of Marine Mammal Parks and Aquariums. For additional information, visit www.georgiaaquarium.org.