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NASA technology to the rescue of whale sharks

CNN’s Call to Earth initiative this time takes on the subject of seas and oceans and the whale shark that lives in them. The station tells the story of how thousands of people around the world, taking part in the Wildbook for Whale Sharks citizen science project, are helping to save the largest fish living
Published: February 19, 2021 - 09:00
Updated: July 22, 2023 - 22:02
NASA technology to the rescue of whale sharks

CNN’s Call to Earth initiative this time takes on the subject of seas and oceans and the whale shark that lives in them. The station tells the story of how thousands of people around the world, taking part in the Wildbook for Whale Sharks citizen science project, are helping to save the largest fish living on our planet.

The whale shark is an endangered species and it is estimated that their population has declined over the past 75 years by more than 50 percent. Despite being protected in many countries, sharks still fall prey to the fishing industry – particularly for their fins, the soup of which, in some parts of Asia, is considered an exceptional delicacy. They are also threatened by oil and gas drilling, ship collisions and climate change.

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Wildbook for Whale Sharksco-founded by Australian marine biologist Brad Norman, is an online photo database that uses NASA technology to identify whale sharks based on their specific skin colouration. Thousands of people from all over the world – ordinary citizens, scientists or tour operators – contribute photos that are used to determine the location of aggregations and migration routes of this endangered species. This in turn can contribute to the planning of strategies to protect their breeding grounds.

As of this moment, the database contains around 70,000 submissions from more than 50 countries, making it one of the largest conservation crowdsourcing projects in the world.

Speaking to CNN, Norman stresses that this kind of crowdsourced data is vital to helping these gentle giants: “Over the last few years, the number of incoming observations has been steadily increasing. The images we get are extremely useful in our research. Thanks to them, we can work together to save this species.”

He explains that the images are analysed by an algorithm that scans the spots and stripes on the animal’s skin, which are unique and unrepeatable like a fingerprint on a human. The algorithm identifies the shark by searching the database for a matching pattern.

CNN learns that the technology used was first developed for NASA’s Hubble Space Telescope programme. The algorithms used for the analysis also work well for identifying whale sharks, as spots on their skin form patterns similar to stars in the night sky.

Norman, who won the Rolex Prize in 2006, says protecting the breeding grounds of whale sharks is a “very important issue” needed to save the species, which could prove helpful in the long term. Data collected by “citizen scientists” will give it a better chance of making this possible: “I can only stay in one place at a time. That’s why the public’s support for our project is very important.”

CNN press release

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About author

Marcin Pawełczyk
Marcin’s journey with diving has been an adventure. Starting as a recreational diver, he soon found himself drawn to the fascinating stories and mysteries of Baltic wrecks. After gaining experience, Marcin decided to go beyond just leisurely exploration and took his training up a notch by completing the TMX course, allowing him to explore even deeper and uncover the secrets of inaccessible places. His next challenge has been cave diving, where he is honing his skills to become a certified diver. Not content to simply take in the breathtaking beauty of underwater life, Marcin has also embraced underwater photography since 2018, capturing stunning shots that bring these worlds alive for those who are unable to experience them first-hand. Marcin’s passion for the underwater has taken him far and is sure to continue doing so as he dives into new depths and captures breathtaking images.
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