Lying in the middle of the Atlantic Ocean, a thousand miles from Angola and over two thousand from Rio de Janeiro, is the world’s most remote island - St. Helena. A British overseas territory, it has a population of just over 4,000 and stretches 47 square miles, but in the waters surrounding St. Helena you will find a plethora of marine species: humpback whales, tuna, marlin, dolphins, Chilean devil rays, and of course, whale sharks.
Today, the ocean waters surrounding St. Helena and her sister islands, Ascension and Tristan da Cunha, have been officially declared a marine protected area (MPA). After extensive work on behalf of the United Kingdom and St. Helenian governments, 200 miles in every direction of St. Helena will be protected and managed much like the Great Barrier Reef. Visitors will be able to sightsee as part of ecotourism and usage permits will allow for recreation, education, and research.
“An overwhelming majority of the United Kingdom’s biodiversity is in this newly declared MPA,” said Dr. Alistair Dove, director of research and conservation at Georgia Aquarium. Dr. Dove has visited St. Helena on field expeditions to study the whale sharks that aggregate there. “The UK is taking steps to protect its biodiversity heritage, and that is outstanding. This will eventually lead to ecotourism in the area and people will come for the purpose to experience and see this natural area.”
While this area of the world may be remote and unfamiliar, Georgia Aquarium has become acquainted with the island, the surrounding waters, and its inhabitants. In 2015 and 2016, Georgia Aquarium researchers visited this island to study the largest fish in the ocean – whale sharks. Georgia Aquarium is the only aquarium in the U.S. to have whale sharks and is a leading expert in whale shark research. Using techniques discovered in the aquarium setting, researchers from Georgia Aquarium and their partners studied the aggregations of whale sharks off St. Helena to better understand their behavior. These field expeditions began because researchers believe whale sharks use St. Helena’s waters as mating grounds – something that has never been witnessed before.
Dr. Dove continued, “We think whale sharks mate around St. Helena and it is key to protect these waters but also have the opportunity for people to see a preserved area and to discover more about our ocean. The number of species that are found here cannot be found anywhere else in the world.”
Georgia Aquarium collaborated with the Marine Section of the Environment and Natural Resources Division of the St. Helena government to share their experiences and research to better understand how these whale sharks are using the area around St. Helena and how to better protect them. This information was used in working towards protections for this unique ecosystem. Researchers also met with school-aged children while on their expeditions and discussed their work and the beautiful biodiversity that exists around their home.
To learn more about St. Helena, visit St. Helena Tourism by clicking here.
To learn more about Georgia Aquarium’s whale shark research, click here.
To view photos from Georgia Aquarium’s St. Helena expeditions, click here.
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.
ABOUT WHALE SHARKS
Whale sharks are the largest fish in the ocean, and due to their size and large cartilaginous skeleton they are very hard to accurately weigh. Females are larger than males as in most shark species. The average length is between 18 and 32 feet. Their mouths can reach up to four feet in diameter but their throats are only about the size of a quarter limiting their prey to zooplankton and small fishes. Whale sharks are currently listed as “Endangered” on the IUCN Red List and populations have decreased dramatically in the last several years due to overfishing in Asian markets. To learn more about whale sharks, visit Georgia Aquarium’s animal guide. To learn more about Georgia Aquarium’s whale shark research and conservation efforts, please visit georgiaaquarium.org/conserve.