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Qatar Ministry of Environment and Maersk Oil: successful whale shark research expedition

In March 2012, the Qatar Ministry of Environment and the Maersk Oil Research & Technology Centre (MO-RTC) signed a Memorandum of Understanding (MoU) for a new scientific research project that will explore and document the diversity and abundance of marine species in Qatari waters, in particular those found in the vicinity of the Al Shaheen field.

The initial focus for this programme is whale sharks Rhincodon typus for which the MO-RTC is supporting the Ministry of Environment’s Qatar Whale Shark Research Project, that commenced in 2010.  In late May 2012, a team of Qatari and International researchers travelled offshore on a 12 day research expedition, accompanied by a world-class underwater camera team to understand why so many whale sharks aggregate in the Al Shaheen area, and to learn more about this elusive species.

“Frequent observations by workers on offshore platforms, supplemented by research activities by the Ministry of Environment, have contributed to the understanding that an unusually high number of whale sharks aggregate in Qatari waters, particularly in and around the Al Shaheen Field” explains Mohammed Al-Jaidah, Environmental Expert at the Ministry of Environment, Qatar. “In fact, this area could potentially be home to one of largest aggregations of whale sharks in the world,” David Robinson, Lead Researcher from Heriot-Watt University

Whale sharks are the largest fish the sea, measuring up to 20 metres in length and can weigh more than 30 tonnes. But at present very little is known about the whale shark population that visit the waters of Qatar each summer between May and September.

“The team performed a number of scientific research activities during the expedition – and even made some scientific breakthroughs” explains Mohammed. “This work was captured on film, and a documentary will be made for use in Qatar to broaden awareness and understanding of this unique population and the research work that is ongoing,” David Robinson, Lead Researcher from Heriot-Watt University.

“We deployed 10 acoustic transmitters on individual whale sharks (40 more are expected to be deployed this year) and 15 acoustic receivers that can detect whale sharks that have acoustic transmitters attached to them” explains Steffen Bach, Environmental theme lead at the MO-RTC who joined the expedition.

“In addition, 7 satellite tags were attached to individual sharks in order to track movements within the Gulf and beyond and we performed photo ID and spot pattern identification” says Steffen. “We encountered around 200 whale sharks during the trip, of which 107 were identified – 13 of whom we had encountered during surveys last year”.

The researchers also took samples of fish spawn, thought to be the whale sharks primary food source for DNA bar coding and tissue biopsy of whale sharks for DNA fatty acid / stable isotope analysis in order to assess relationships to other whale shark populations and feeding patterns.

It is believed that one contributing reason to the sharks’ presence in the Al Shaheen oil field may be the large offshore platforms. The structures form an artificial reef environment for fish, and fishing restrictions ensure large fish stocks prevail. The spawning fish provide a food source for the whale sharks, attracting them in large numbers to the area in the period from May to September.

Whale Shark Feeding