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Whale Sharks In Belize

Populations of large pelagic migratory fish have declined steeply in the past two decades due to overexploitation. Efforts to manage or protect these species have been constrained by their cryptic nature and a paucity of knowledge of their biology and behaviour. Conservation of migratory animals requires understanding of the movements of individual animals, populations and species. Whale sharks (Rhincodon typus), the main subject of this thesis, are large, planktivorous, highly mobile and pantropical, and their life history traits of late maturity, longevity and low fecundity make them vulnerable to overexploitation but little is known of their behaviour. 

A five-year study of their behaviour in an unexploited population was undertaken on the Belize Barrier Reef between 1998 and 2003, in relation to a spatio-temporally predictable food source, in order to improve management and conservation. Whale sharks displayed strong diel, intra- and inter-seasonal fidelity to Gladden Spit, a particular site that hosts large seasonal aggregations of spawning snappers. The population of whale sharks at Gladden Spit is transient and composed primarily of juvenile males. Individuals measured a mean total length of 6.3 m ± SD 1.7 m (range: 3.0 m to 12.7 m; error of ± 0.50 m). Satellite pop-off tags revealed that the whale sharks were physiologically robust, being able to dive over 1000 m and withstand temperatures under 50C possibly for orientation or to locate abundant sources of food. Diving behaviour displayed a strong circadian and circalunar component. 

After feeding on cubera and dog snapper (Lutjanus cyanopterus and L. jocu) spawn at Gladden, sharks dispersed throughout the Belize Barrier Reef with directed movements of over 550 km recorded to the tip of the Yucatan Peninsula and east of the Bay Islands in Honduras. Whale sharks did not appear to aggregate at any of seven other documented fish spawning aggregation sites on the Belize Barrier Reef. 

FPSR Whale Shark with DiversThe mutton snapper (L. analis) fishery based at Gladden Spit experienced significant declines in catch per unit effort and size of fish caught between 2000 and 2002. Declines occured despite a drop in the number of fishers fishing the spawning aggregation since the inception of the fishery. Whale sharks did not appear to prey on mutton snapper spawn and were unlikely contributors to the mutton snappers' decline. In 2002, whale shark encounter tourism brought US$ 1.35 million to the Gladden Spit and Silk Cayes Marine Reserve communities, offering an economic alternative to the mutton snapper fishery. Patterns of whale shark movement and feeding behaviour indicated that the marine reserve boundaries encompassed the main spawning aggregation and whale shark feeding zones. Increased visitor and boat numbers to the marine reserve coincided with alterations in the spawning behaviour of aggregating snappers and consequently the visitation of whale sharks at Gladden Spit. Strong management directives and enforcement are needed at the marine reserve to check unregulated growth of tourism and thus minimize its impacts on the fish spawning aggregations and visiting whale sharks. 

FPSR Shark TaggerTag Talk!

Many tagging methods are used to gather as much information about the population size, variability and behaviour of usually elusive whale sharks. This is a guide to each tag type: 

Conventional visual tags are plastic rectangular tags that are color-coded for the year with a large identification number printed on it. These are attached to the shark by means of a tether placed near the 1st dorsal fin. This allows anyone to identify the same whale shark over the course of a season or over several years.

Acoustic or pinger tags release a burst of "pings" that forms a specific code identifying the animal it is attached to. The signal is picked up by a boat-based or underwater hydrophone whenever the shark is within 500 m range. This allows re-searchers to track the animal and know when a particular individual is in the area. 

Satellite pop-up tags record information on depth, tempera-ture and light levels over the course of months. After a prede-termined amount of time the tag releases itself from the ani-mal, floats to the surface and transmits the data it collected to an overhead ARGOS satellite. Data are processed and sent to researchers for further analysis. 

Satellite location-only tags provide fine-scale movement information by transmitting a location to overhead satellites when the shark is at the surface.

Research Objectives:

  • Estimate the population structure, abundance and variability of whale sharks occurring on the Belize Barrier Reef
  • Determine degree of loyalty to a particular site (site fidelity) and mi-gratory patterns of the whale shark in Belize & the greater Caribbean
  • Elucidate whale shark foraging behavior
  • Transform data into information useful for whale shark management and conservation 


Methods used include visual observation with scuba and from boats, documentation of behaviour with video and individual shark identifica-tions with still cameras, use of tags (see box at right), tissue sampling for DNA analysis, plankton analysis, and oceanographic profiling. 

Results to date:

  • Whale sharks are capable of large scale movement around the Belize and Mesoamerican Barrier Reefs. Several of the 69 sharks tagged with conventional tags have been resighted be-tween years at Gladden, in the Bay Islands, Honduras, near Turneffe Atoll, and near Cancun, Mexico.
  • Whale sharks time their movement with sea-sonally available food. 22 sharks tagged with acous-tic/ pinger tags show that whale sharks return to Gladden monthly and yearly timed to the snapper spawning moons. Under-water receivers moored throughout the reef re-corded the passage of sharks throughout the en-tire Belize Barrier Reef and three atolls showing that they often re-turn to Gladden in time to feed on snapper spawn.
  • Whale sharks can dive to great depths and withstand large changes in pressure and temperature. 11 sharks were tagged with geolocating satellite pop-off tags. Whale sharks have set diving records: they are diving to over 3,300 feet to waters with temperatures less than 5 0 C.
  • 5 satellite location-only tags deployed in March and April 2003 are already showing fine-scale movement along the barrier reef.
  • Whale sharks at Gladden Spit are primarily feeding on jellyfish such as Linuche unguiculata and on zooplankton such as copepods.

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