Most Dubaians’ knowledge about whale sharks extends to two points: first, there’s one in the Atlantis hotel’s aquarium, and second, this is a bad thing. But the UAE is far more involved with the survival of the whale sharks – a ‘vulnerable’ species, according to the International Union for Conservation of Nature – than we or even the experts had imagined.
How important are the UAE’s waters to whale sharks?
The area is very important to the survival of the species. First, we have a high number of females in the region. That’s something that’s missing from other hotspots in the Seychelles, the Maldives, Jabuti [in Brazil] and Ningaloo [off the west coast of Australia]. In those places, we’re finding predominantly male groupings of whale sharks. When I say mainly, I’m talking 96, 97 per cent. So that leaves the question: where are the females? We’ve realised we have females here and that makes us a very important part of the equation.
Why are they here?
The incidental capture, or capture by fishermen, of baby whale sharks indicates that the UAE waters are part of a pupping ground. It would be easy to say we are in the heart of an important nursery, but it’s not easy to say whether they’re pupping exactly off the coast of Dubai or the UAE. It’s thought that they tend to give birth at depth. So the Arabian Sea, the Gulf of Oman – along those continental shelves is an ideal area.
Why have we only found out about this now?
There’s been an absence of research and information coming out of this region, and that has been hindering [other] work that’s being done [with whale sharks]. It’s very much an important discovery, but it’s still to be put into context scientifically. It’s definitely the case that females are here, pupping has occurred in several areas close to us – Oman, for example – and throughout the summer we’ve had so many sightings of whale sharks along the coast that this is obviously an important area. But one of the things we have to be careful of is how we define ‘this area’. The coastal areas from India up through Pakistan and along the Iranian coast into Oman, and down past the Arabian Sea coast, are areas where females have been seen. And as you move into the Gulf, there are also females here.
Why, aside from the lack of female whale sharks, is the species endangered?
In certain areas – Pakistan, for instance – there is focused fisheries activity on whale sharks. Whale sharks traditionally, even in this part of the region, have been targeted for their body fat, which is boiled down to create oil used for the caulking of dhows. Shark oil has always been a preferred material for building dhows, so anywhere that has a tradition of dhow building would have been involved at one time or another in hunting whale sharks. It still goes on. There’s also the fin trade. A large dorsal fin is valued very highly for decorative purposes and can fetch up to US$15,000 [Dhs55,000]. And obviously that attracts a certain type of fisherman.
So how can we protect them?
Although whale sharks are protected internationally, it’s not enforced locally and regionally. It needs greater enforcement. Although the UAE has partially banned the live finning of sharks, there are still loopholes. The Arab world is a major supplier of shark fins to the Far East. Recognising that whale sharks need protection and educating the fishing community to protect them – these are some very important steps in the
See www.sharkquestarabia.com for more details.
How you can get involved
In December, Ali Khan hosted the first Arabian Seas Whale Shark Research Symposium and Workshop at Le Méridien Al Aqah in Fujairah. Here, he revealed how his initiative, Sharkquest Arabia, together with international organisation Ecocean, are adding photographs to a global database to keep better track of the world’s whale sharks. Each whale shark has an individual pattern of spots, helping scientists to track individual sharks. If you’re a diver and you see one, here’s what to do:
•Take a picture of the shark from behind the fifth gill up to the dorsal fin, along the left flank.
•If there is opportunity, take a picture of the right side, too.
•If you get chance, try to get an image of the underside of the shark, which will show the sex of the animal.