An increase in whale shark sightings off the coast of Sarasota is helping Mote Marine Laboratory and Aquarium scientists learn more about them.
Scientists from Mote tagged two whale sharks after members of the public spotted the fish near the southwest coast. The polka-dotted filter feeders were first spotted in early June.
Mote scientists have been tagging different shark species since 1991. The electronic tags report data directly to satellites.
“We don’t have to get the tag back to follow the animal and find out about its movement and its habitat, the critical places for its life,” said Robert Hueter, senior scientist and director of Mote’s Center for Shark Research. “In the case of the whale sharks, we’re using a type of satellite tag that we hope will give us some information while they’re swimming, during the track, and then upload all the information that they’ve stored at the end of the six-month period.”
Mote’s scientists tagged the whale sharks -- a female and an immature male – after receiving information from boaters. For now, the 15- to 17-foot-long “Colt” and 22- to 25-foot-long “Minnie” are the only whale sharks being monitored by the laboratory. Tags cost about $5,000 each.
“These tags take data that help us understand the migratory patterns of the animals, they also record data on temperature and depth,” said Hueter. “So we can look at not only two dimensional space at the surface, but also their three dimensional movements, see how deep they dive.”
Hueter said the information from the tags will help educate people about the conservation of the largest fish species in the world. Data will also be used to understand why the sharks swim to other countries. The sharks had been known to occasionally visit the area around 40 miles off Anna Maria Island. But, this year, Hueter believes the fish are staying longer.
“Whale sharks really like to eat fish eggs that are spawned,” said Hueter. “So they may be concentrating in those areas where those eggs are more densely found.”
The senior scientist encourages people to continue reporting whale shark sightings in the Gulf of Mexico. Boaters are getting better at providing more information about whale sharks, he said.
“It’s been an amazing response, very high quality reports this year,” said Hueter. “Everybody has really upped their game and everybody’s out there as a citizen scientist helping with this great effort to understand the status of the whale shark in our gulf waters.”