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The Qatar Whale Shark Project

About the Project

 

An extraordinary discovery

Every year the world’s largest fish aggregate in huge numbers in the Al Shaheen oil field off the coast of Qatar. In the summer months, more than one hundred whale sharks have been spotted feeding in the warm surface waters of the Gulf.

Although the sharks have been observed by local fishermen and offshore platform workers for years, the magnitude of this natural wonder has only just recently been realised.

The presence of large numbers of Whale Sharks in the central part of the Gulf was an unexpected finding because the sea surface temperatures can reach up to 34 degrees Celsius in the summer – above what is believed to be the comfort zone of whale sharks.

 

It started with a photograph

In 2007 Soren Stig, a Maersk Oil offshore worker in the Al Shaheen field, took photographs of more than 100 whale sharks surrounding a platform and submitted the photo to the global whale shark database ‘Ecocean’.

Then in 2010 David Robinson, of Heriot-Watt University, found the photographs during his initial research for his doctoral thesis on whale sharks in Arabia; he then made contact with the Ministry of Environment (MOE) in Qatar.

Special Environmental Advisor to the Ministry of Environment in Qatar, Mohammed Al Jaidah, quickly realised the importance of the discovery and together they formed the Qatar Whale Shark Research Project (QWSR) in 2010.

Whale shark surveys to the Al Shaheen field began in April 2011 and on their first research trip they attached a satellite tag to an 8 metre female they named ‘Amna’. This was the first satellite tag deployed by the QWSR and also the first satellite tag deployed on a wild and free swimming whale shark anywhere in the Gulf. The QWSR team works closely with the Qatar Coast Guard to access the Shaheen field, where public access and fishing is banned.

 

The beginning of close partnerships

Al Shaheen is the largest offshore oil field in Qatar and is operated by Maersk Oil on behalf of Qatar Petroleum, producing approximately a third of Qatar’s oil. It appears that the platforms play an important role – not only for recording whale shark sightings, but also as massive artificial reefs. Thousands of colorful fish can be observed among the sponges and soft corals that grow on the oil platforms; creating a marine oasis in a desert sea.

Consequently, the Maersk Oil Research and Technology Centre (MO-RTC) and the MOE signed a Memorandum of Understanding in March 2012 to shed more light on the biodiversity in the Al Shaheen field and MO-RTC became a member of QWSR.

Right after the first two-week long whale shark expedition was launched with the participation of the BBC Natural History Unit filming for the TV-series Wild Arabia and later that year the first aerial whale shark survey was conducted in cooperation with the Qatar Emiri Air Force. In the coming years the QWSR will use state-of-the art technology to get a get a better understanding why sharks aggregate in such high numbers in the Al Shaheen area and the importance of the Arabian Gulf as a whale shark hot spot.

Qatar Whale Shark Project members and supporting partners:

  • Qatar Ministry of Environment
  • Maersk Oil Research and Technology Centre
  • Qatar Coast Guard
  • Qatar Emiri Air Force
  • Heriot Watt University