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Friday, June 18, 2021

Qatar waters offer unexpected summer ‘sanctuary’ for whale sharks

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All photos courtesy of Simone Caprodossi/Qatar Whale Shark Research Project

To the surprise of researchers, hundreds of the world’s largest sharks are choosing the waters off of Qatar’s coast as their primary summertime habitat.

The Gulf was historically thought to be too hot for the whale shark, a creature that’s been dubbed a “gentle giant” and known to grow up to 18m long – larger than a typical bus.

Historically, this type of shark was more commonly found off Mexico’s Yucatan Peninsula, around the Galápagos Islands, in the Red Sea near Djibouti and off the coast of Taiwan, among other places.

But in recent years, congregations of more than 100 whale sharks have been observed around several of Qatar’s offshore oil platforms, which provide a “sanctuary” for the creatures and the mackerel tuna upon whose eggs they feed.

Al Shaheen oil field
Al Shaheen oil field

The Al Shaheen oil field – which is located 90km off Qatar’s coast near the country’s maritime border with Iran – is a high-security zone that’s mostly closed to the public.

With minimal boat traffic, researchers say some of the oil platforms appear to have flourished as artificial reefs.

“They are attracting a lot of reef species that you don’t see in the sandy Gulf,” said Steffen Bach, a senior environmental advisor with the Maersk Oil Research and Technology Center in Qatar.

Thousands of colorful fish now swim among the sponges and soft corals growing on the oil platforms, researchers say, “creating a marine oasis is a desert sea.”

Local researchers are currently working to estimate the size of Qatar’s whale shark population, as well as gain a better understanding of what exactly is attracting the creatures to the area.

Next year, they will also host some of the world’s leading experts in the field when the International Whale Shark Conference comes to Qatar in May 2016. This will be the first time the event will be held in the Middle East.

“It will put Qatar on the map for whale sharks,” Bach told Doha News, adding that the event will show that the country’s waters are “a biodiversity hotspot.”

Unanswered questions

Research into whale sharks in the Gulf started in 2007 when Soren Stig, a Maersk Oil offshore worker, snapped photos of more than 100 whale sharks surrounding a platform and posted them online.

However, it wasn’t until 2010 that intense study began after David Robinson, who was conducting research for his doctoral thesis at Heriot-Watt University on whale sharks in the Gulf, found the images.

Robinson contacted Qatar’s Ministry of the Environment, where Mohammed Al Jaidah – together with Maersk Oil and Heriot-Watt University – formed the Qatar Whale Shark Research Project.

Surveys to the Al Shaheen field began in April 2011.

Since then, nearly 400 different whale sharks have been identified in Al Shaheen using photographs that capture each animal’s unique spotted skin markings. Researchers have also used acoustic, satellite and light level tags to learn more about the creature’s movements.

But they still have many unanswered questions. For example, whale sharks are spotted in Al Shaheen almost exclusively between the months of April and October, and it’s still not clear where they go during the winter.

One theory, according to a 2013 academic paper, is that many leave the Gulf and travel more broadly within the Arabian Sea, an idea supported by the fact that whale shark sightings in the Strait of Hormuz and Gulf of Oman peak in April and November – just before and after they gather in Qatar’s waters.

Bach said he’s also been trying to verify the importance of the offshore platforms in attracting whale sharks and mackerel tuna.

He said the fact that whale sharks are spotted around some platforms and not others suggests “something else is going on.”

One of this theories involves water currents.

In the summer, several cyclone-shaped “transition zones” appear around Al Shaheen as water coming in from the Arabian Sea mixes with river water discharged from Iraq. This affects the water’s temperature, nutrient content, the amount of food for mackerel tuna and where their eggs end up.

“(Al Shaheen) is not necessarily the choice of whale sharks. It’s where they are going to eat,” Bach said.

Protection

One of the reasons that it’s important to understand the role of the platforms themselves is that offshore equipment is typically decommissioned and removed once oil fields are depleted.

While Al Shaheen is expected to continue producing oil for many years to come, Bach said he wants to learn more about the relationship between whale sharks and the artificial reefs in the Gulf.

Whale shark
Whale shark

But there are other more pressing threats to the species, which is considered “vulnerable” by international conservation authorities. This designation means it faces a high risk of extinction in the wild.

The International Union for Conservation of Nature said the global population is in decline and is threatened by legal and illegal fishing, including accidental catches.

Locally, researchers have documented significant scars on several whale sharks left by boat propellers. While it’s not known where the incidents occurred, the Strait of Hormuz – a narrow and heavily trafficked shipping channel – is one possibility.

Bach said he hopes next year’s conference in Qatar attracts regulators from across the GCC, who could develop conservation guidelines aimed at protecting whale sharks in the region.

Before then, however, researchers have another busy summer of offshore monitoring ahead of them. Bach said he and his colleagues typically make about 20-odd trips annually to Al Shaheen.

He described getting into the water and swimming among the massive creatures as “one of the most amazing experiences I’ve ever had.”

“When you recognize a whale shark by its spots and scars, you think, ‘Hey, you’re back.’ It almost like you’re part of the family.”

Thoughts?

18 COMMENTS

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A_qtr
A_qtr
6 years ago

well that’s one group of expats who don’t need a kafeel…. yalla doha expats.. the one who can come up with the most negative comment wins…

on the qatar charity bike riders… MIMH continues to be crowned trailed by the observant one who is closing in fast..

ready.. set.. go

Kh
Kh
6 years ago
Reply to  A_qtr

DavidRSS8 is back, he might over take ObvservantOne, but not the king of negativity MIMH.

DavidRSS8
DavidRSS8
6 years ago
Reply to  Kh

Glad I have a fan. Balanced observation is only negative if you’ve been drinking the kool-aid

MIMH
MIMH
6 years ago
Reply to  Kh

My comments are mixed, seems you only focus on the ones that don’t agree with your particular view of the world. Time to understand the world is seen in different ways by different people.

Observant One
Observant One
6 years ago
Reply to  Kh

I made a positive comment! However my sarcastic one got more up votes, so blame the readers for liking my sarcasm more then my supportive comment on the bike riders…. Also I’ve made a positive comment on the library article and even had a crack at MIMH! …perhaps one should not be blinded and only see what one wishes to see?

Observant One
Observant One
6 years ago
Reply to  Kh

You forgot Skippy1111 he or she is really burst out of the blocks and heading for the winner of clarity of perception !

DavidRSS8
DavidRSS8
6 years ago
Reply to  A_qtr

yalla trolls. Let’s see who can turn this into an expat bashing thread. Oh wait we have a winner.

A_qtr
A_qtr
6 years ago
Reply to  DavidRSS8

Face it David you know I’m right

DavidRSS8
DavidRSS8
6 years ago
Reply to  A_qtr

Sometimes, sure. But when you jump on a thread and and complain about expats complaining before they even complain, you just come across as even bigger hater (and more than a little paranoid). It also associates you with the idiots who make up accounts only to write obscenities, because they REALLY like you.

The article is about fish, and awfully amazing ones at that. Probably the only more amazing creatures I’ve seen in the Gulf are the humpback wales.

Saleem
Saleem
6 years ago
Reply to  DavidRSS8

If you do read most of the threads on here you will find that it is not baseless paranoia, nor is it even paranoia at all, it is just fact. There are expats on here do criticize things here in objective manner, and then there is the sad lot…

That being said, there are those from my lot who are overly sensitive and expect a North Korea like obedience and submission to certain points of view…

Saleem
Saleem
6 years ago
Reply to  DavidRSS8

Are you seriously going to imply there are comparable number of “expat bashing” to “Qatari bashing” threads? There could be an article about preparing a lemon cake and your lot would find some way to bash Qataris. Don’t even try to hide the contempt as merely being the “alternative view”, it is usually nothing but hateful and bitter comments about the people, their religion and culture.

MIMH
MIMH
6 years ago
Reply to  A_qtr

Yeah it’s funny when animals can come and go as they please but Qatar believes it must control humans and break several UN Human Rights conventions in the process

Observant One
Observant One
6 years ago
Reply to  A_qtr

I made a positive comment! However my sarcastic one got more up votes, so blame the readers for liking my sarcasm more then my supportive comment on the bike riders…. Also I’ve made a positive comment on the library article and even had a crack at MIMH! …perhaps one should not be blinded and only see what one wishes to see?

Gaga
Gaga
6 years ago

Does fishes and sharks also need exit permits to go out of Qatar?

ShabinaKhatri
ShabinaKhatri
6 years ago
Reply to  Gaga

Deleting for irrelevance.

Simon
Simon
6 years ago

Is one of them Septic Twatter hiding out the remainder of his term???

ShabinaKhatri
ShabinaKhatri
6 years ago
Reply to  Simon

Deleting for inappropriate language and irrelevance.

MIMH
MIMH
6 years ago

Poor sharks, they have 99 problems but an exit permit isn’t one

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