Whale Sharks Keep UMS Students On Their Toes During Conditional Order

KOTA KINABALU: Marine biology students at Universiti Malaysia Sabah (UMS) have been having a whale of a time over the last two months here.

Not literally letting their hair down of course but taking advantage of the travel restrictions brought on by the Covid-19 virus to build a treasure trove on whale shark sightings in Malaysia that is ultimately expected to further propel dive tourism besides academic research.

They have been busy building the database with a little help from divers’ posts on social media, to tag footage of whale sharks and upload photos and videos to Wildbook (https://www.whaleshark.org) – the online library for global whale shark sightings.

“It has been an interesting start to the project,” said Associate Professor Dr Mabel Manjaji Matsumoto, Interim Head, Endangered Marine Species Research Unit of the Borneo Marine Research Institute at UMS.

“The lockdown has obviously affected our capacity to carry out some projects, but has also provided us with unique opportunities to develop others, such as gathering citizen science data on social media like this. So far, four individual whale sharks have been identified during the MCO.”

“However, we need help to find more individuals. We are asking divers and snorkellers with footage of whale sharks to tag our project on their social media posts to make it easier for us to find – simply adding @Malaysia Whale Sharks will enable much easier identification. They can also upload the footage directly onto Wildbook.”

A local conservation organisation, S.E.A.S (Sea Education Awareness Sabah), has been assisting the project by going through old footage and tagging the Malaysia Whale Shark project.

“Whale sharks are one of those species that divers are thrilled to catch on camera, being incredibly enigmatic megafauna, threatened with extinction and increasingly rare to see,” said David McCann, Conservation Manager for S.E.A.S, based at the dive operator Scuba Junkie’s Mabul Beach Resort.

“The recent MCO enabled us to go through our old footage on social media and tag whale sharks. We had a huge backlog,”he said.

“It was quite a fun task, almost like a giant logbook of sightings – and it brought back many fond memories of how incredible Sabah is as a diving destination.

“We look forward to the end of travel restrictions, when we can take people back into the water and show them the unique marine biodiversity in Sabah … and hopefully take some new photos of whale sharks!”

Travel restrictions had left the UMS students unable to travel to survey sites such as Pulau Gaya where they recorded their first official whale shark of the project, MY-065, just five days before the MCO was declared on March 13.

The students have been using computer software to identify individuals through markings unique to each animal. It is akin to a ‘fingerprint’ showing on their skin.

When the date, time, and location of sighting is uploaded, this simple action enables researchers to track movements of individual animals – a powerful tool for population and migratory studies.

An update on this work will be provided at the Sabah Shark and Ray Forum, to be held in 2021.