Melbourne, 14th September 2007
60 Minutes Australia presents an interview with Brad Norman, founder of Ecocean.
Interviewer: Brad, thankyou for joining us tonight in our live online interview room.
Brad Norman: Thanks for having me. I'm very pleased to be able to answer any questions and assist with the conservation of this threatened species.
Tobias asks: I am confused, why do they call it a whale shark?
Brad Norman: They are actually a shark and have cartilage for a skeleton and they don't breathe air as a mammal does which a whale does. The reason they are called whale sharks is because they are as big as a while and eat small organisms as whales do, but they are definitely a shark.
Samual asks: How many whale sharks exist in the wild?
Brad Norman: There is so much we don't know about whale sharks including their numbers in the wild, we are currently embarking on a global research program using photo-identification and tourists from all around the world to help us get a better understanding of their numbers in the wild. In the coming years we hope to have a much better understanding of their numbers and whether they are still in decline in the wild as we suspect.
Neptunes Daughter asks: My daughter watched about the whale sharks and wonders what they feel like. Are they lumpy, smooth, rough or slimy?
Brad Norman: It is actually not permitted to touch whale sharks but their skin is very similar to other sharks in that it has a very rough sandpaper like feel to it.
Peter asks: Hi, while I can appreciate the beauty of the whale sharks, I can't understand how we can justify championing them when we harvest other fish without conscience?
Brad Norman: We like to think of whale sharks as a flagship for shark conservation in general. Whale sharks are iconic and they capture peoples' imagination and interest and this is so important for marine conservation in general if we can get people to learn more about the marine environment then they can help to save that environment.
Dr Crab asks: Would you say more global co-operations are needed to protect our sea life?
Brad Norman: Definitely. I work with the conservation group Ecocean and that's one of our primary interests, to raise awareness for whale shark conservation on a global scale and draw stakeholders in all the countries visited by whale sharks, to work for their international conservation. It is not only the people and local community members and developed and developing world countries that need to work to this goal, but it's Governments of these countries as well.
mitchy asks: Where is Ningaloo reef and can anyone dive with the whale sharks there?
Brad Norman: Ningaloo Reef is north west of WA, it's Australia's longest fringing reef and the whale sharks can be found very close to that reef. Each year between April and June ecotourists have the opportunity to swim with these magnificent sharks.
TWaits asks: Is the overfishing of this species primarily confined to the subcontinent and Japan, or do other regions contribute significantly?
Brad Norman: In years past it's been mainly Taiwan, India and the Philippines, but as the world is realising how threatened this species is, and how unsustainable the kill of whale sharks has been, we have had some success in encouraging a stop to this activity. However, there are some areas where whale sharks are caught and there is very little ability to quantify the exact number taken. Ecocean is currently embarking on a monitoring programme that will help us answer some of these questions in the near future.
Maverick asks: Do whale sharks have the same attitudes as normal sharks, e.g. aggressive behaviour?
Brad Norman: In all the years that I've swum with whale sharks, beginning in 1995, and having swum with them on literally thousands of occasions, I am yet to see an aggressive behaviour from this gentle giant.
gorson asks: Hi there, two questions: Roughly how many spots do whale sharks have, and what is the largest ever recorded?
Brad Norman: Whale sharks have hundreds of spots arranged differently for each individual. We have been able to prove this using technology we have adapted from NASA and the Hubble Space Telescope. This is how we can be sure whether we have a new shark or a resighted shark and this is the foundation of the Ecocean library we have used to help understand the numbers of whale sharks in the wild. As far as the length goes, there have been reports of a whale shark measuring more than 18 metres however the largest I have ever swum with is about 11.5 meters.
catmac asks: What is being done to assist in their conservation other than establishing their identification?
Brad Norman: There is a lot of researchers and conservationists collaborating across the world to increase the protection of whale sharks on both a national and an international scale. In the year 2000, Ecocean had the whale shark listed under Australian legislation as a threatened species. In 2002 whale sharks became listed on Appendix II, under the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species (CITES), which regulates trade in this species. The whale shark was the first shark to be listed under this Convention and since then there has been increased efforts to stop the hunt and trade of whale sharks throughout the world, culminating in a ban on whale shark hunting in Taiwan to be implemented in 2008.
Anna asks: Have we been able to identify the whale sharks that visit Ningaloo each year? Do most of them come back each year? Do we know where they give birth?
Brad Norman: It's very encouraging to confirm, using the Ecocean photo ID library that many whale sharks return to Ningaloo in successive years. In fact, one individual, A-001, has been returning to Ningaloo almost every year since 1995. Only one pregnant whale shark has ever been found and that was off the coast of Taiwan in 1995. It is one of the main goals of our research to identify the breeding grounds for this species and work towards protection for these critical habitats as a priority.
GeorgeK asks: Brad, are the mining companies still wanting to mine for gas and oil in the Ningaloo area?
Brad Norman: The North West Shelf Oil and Gas projects is a major industry in that part of the world.
marshqld asks: How many off spring do whale sharks have?
Brad Norman: From the only pregnant whale shark ever found, almost 300 embryos were in twin uteri of the shark. The young were almost ready to be born and their length was around 60cm. They are obviously extremely vulnerable when born at this size.
Samantha asks: How can they justify the research they are doing when they are in a controlled environment in aquariums?
Brad Norman: It is obviously extremely different circumstances in a small tank compared to the expanse of the world's oceans. I agree it's questionable.
lucky asks: Is it true they are dinosaurs?
Brad Norman: Their ancestry does go back to the Jurassic period. These sharks have been around for a long, long time.
Peter asks: Brad, on the video, I noticed what seemed to be feeder fish around the whale shark. If they are feeders, why are they given, given that whale sharks eat plankton?
Brad Norman: They can feed on scraps, whale sharks can take the sucker fish to where food is. They also receive protection from the larger whale shark. In fact we discovered a new species of Copepod (a parasite on the skin of the shark), which may be a food source for the sucker fish.
laanguy asks: How likely will it be in the future after protecting these animals, to research their breeding habits, growth of young, etc?
Brad Norman: Currently Ecocean is working with stereo camera to measure the growth rate of whale sharks in the wild. Importantly we need to find where the whale sharks are breeding and then that will give us an opportunity to study the natural life cycle of this species. This is definitely a priority.
addie asks: What is the estimated life span of the whale shark?
Brad Norman: It's really unknown. It has been suggested these sharks can live to over 100 years but it is currently guesswork. Our international collaborative research programme will hopefully come up with these answers in the near future.
Peter asks: Brad, in the aquariums, how can they keep up the hand/basket feeding to the level that whale sharks get in the wild?
Brad Norman: Whale sharks are global migrators; they search the ocean constantly for food. They have been tracked for more than 13,000km and diving to depths of 1,500m. They certainly have to eat a lot.
Jim123 asks: Is the practice of researching whale sharks in controlled environments only conducted in the USA?
Brad Norman: Whale sharks are studied in other locations including Japan. The approach that we conservationists take is to study the whale sharks in their natural environment to better understand how we can protect them in the wild.
concerned asks: The man from the aquarium said they were still looking into the cause of death of the two whale sharks lost this year, as a marine biologist, what would your theory be? Aside from the fact they are in a totally inappropriate setting?
Brad Norman: We are very keen to learn of the results of the necropsy. There has been a report that the first whale shark that died in the Georgia Aquarium was being force-fed using a plastic tube and that the tubing may have caused internal damage. One possibility would be stress in an unnatural environment.
spencerb asks: How can someone join Ecocean and dive with whale sharks?
Brad Norman: You can immediately learn more about whale sharks by going to the Ecocean website www.ecocean.org . Anyone that swims with the whale sharks whether it be Australia or anywhere in the world can become an Ecocean research assistant simply by taking a photograph of the whale shark noting it's date and location of sighting and submitting it to the Ecocean library. www.whaleshark.org. We will keep you up to date of where and when this shark travels around the world and hope that your interest in whale shark conservation can be passed along to your friends and family so that we can all work to protect and save the largest fish in the sea.
Interviewer: Unfortunately we are out of time, do you have any last words before we finish up?
Brad Norman: Thankyou for the opportunity to raise the awareness to the plight of these species, and thankyou for all coming to the interview tonight and showing an interest.
View 60 Minutes video here:
View Earthwatch Whale Sharks expedition here