After two years away, due to the COVID-19 pandemic, we were relieved and excited to be able to return to the field for our 2022 season. We weren’t quite sure what to expect after such a long time away – except that there would be some challenges ahead!
We’ve now wrapped another successful season: collecting data on Nosy Be’s whale shark population and providing advice to local tourism operators as well as reaching some other exciting milestones.
Since the season ended, we’ve been reviewing our data and wanted to share an overview of the 2022 season with you.
2022: an overview
The 2022 season was a little slow to start. Unusually, we didn’t see whale sharks arrive until a little later than usual – in early October. But, finally, they did arrive and we saw 107 whale sharks in total.
This is a little lower than in previous years but we don’t know whether the population has declined or we simply didn’t see as many of the sharks. The sharks we saw this year were between three and eight metres long, as expected for a juvenile male-dominated population.
Of the sharks we did observe, 66 hadn’t been identified before while 45 were already known to us and recorded in our database. Seeing such a high percentage of new sharks (60%) is quite unusual but is likely because we were away in 2020 and 2021. As expected (because we see mostly males here in Nosy Be), 70 of those were male while only 12 were female. We couldn’t identify the sex for the further 25 individuals.
Who did we see?
Some old favourites returned. Teddy (MD-429) was the most observed shark in 2022 with 13 sightings. Hugo (MD-162), Maurice (MD-226) and Alphonse (MD-155) also greeted us several times: each of these males were seen at least 10 times in 2022. Odile (MD-066) was the only known female we saw in the 2022 season. At a whopping 8m long, Adam (MD-005) also made an appearance. He had been recorded by our team in 2018 but was first identified 17 years ago by a diver in 2005! Great to see he’s still safe and well after so many years, he is pretty big by now so likely he will be off into the big blue soon.
New tech solutions
To help in our data collection efforts, this year we were excited to have a new tool to help our team. Our data specialist, Justin Beresford, developed an electronic format which automatically uploads the data from our field surveys to an online database once back on land and connected to the internet. Thanks to this automation, we’ve been able to streamline our data collection, minimise human error and speed up our data collection, storage and analysis.
Deploying the acoustic network
This season, we also successfully deployed 10 acoustic receivers and tagged 34 whale sharks. This was a big project for us, and a big challenge as we never did this before! We plan to use the data collected to figure out patterns within the movement patterns of the local sharks and the habitats they’re choosing to visit. After having already retrieved all the stations in December, we’re looking forward to seeing what we find when we get back to the field. This project is led in collaboration with the Marine Megafauna Foundation, Florida International University and the Wildlife Conservation Society and thanks to funding from the Shark Conservation Fund, the Georgia Aquarium and private donors.
The 2022 season by numbers
To wrap up, here’s our season by numbers. During the 2022 season (1 September to 17 December 2022), we:
- Conducted 158 boat surveys (thanks to support from Baleines Rand’eau)
- Recorded 304 sightings of 107 individual whale sharks
- Recorded an additional 15 sharks thanks to sightings from our partners
- Reached 495 individual sharks observed since 2015
- Met 66 new sharks we hadn’t seen before
- Tagged 34 sharks
- Helped educate 800 local children from 7 schools about marine conservation (in partnership with our local partner Mada Megafauna)
- Ran 12 training sessions, teaching local operators how to interact responsibly with these endangered creatures
- Hosted 12 volunteers, plus 2 Masters students
- Deployed 10 acoustic stations
- Resighted one shark who hadn’t been seen for SEVENTEEN years!
- Took the President of Madagascar, Andry Rajoelina, out on the water to see first-hand why protecting whale sharks is so important
And – leaving the biggest and most exciting milestone for last – through our collaboration with other NGOs, we’ve helped ensure the Code of Conduct is being added to Malagasy law! It will soon be compulsory for all operators across Madagascar interacting with marine megafauna.
We’d like to say a huge thank you to everyone who has supported us this year – we’re so grateful for all your help.
The Madagascar Whale Shark Project Team