The Ocean

Photo: Whale shark

A whale shark swimming and feeding at surface during a June 2010 feeding aggregation at Ewing Bank.

Photograph by Eric Hoffmayer

About the Project

The Gulf of Mexico is an essential habitat for many shark and ray species, including the whale shark (Rhincodon typus). The oil spill that resulted from the explosion of BP’s Deepwater Horizon platform in the northern Gulf of Mexico is currently located in whale shark essential habitat and is posing a critical threat to this species in the region.

From 2003 to 2009, over 300 whale shark sightings were reported to the Gulf Coast Research Laboratory’s northern Gulf of Mexico whale shark sightings survey, and over a third of the sightings were within the ever expanding area of the spill. Given the amount of time whale sharks spend at or near the surface of the water, there is considerable potential for harm or death to individuals from direct exposure to and contamination from the spill (via oiling or clogging of their gills), as well as from depletion of prey or consumption of oil-contaminated prey. In addition to oil observed at the surface of the water, dispersants currently being used to “breakup” the oil will significantly increase its areal extent via proliferation throughout the water column, resulting in additional exposure to whale sharks.

NGS/Waitt grantee Dr. Eric Hoffmayer will be tagging whale sharks with satellite transmitters—which will report real-time location estimates—to determine if they are being directly impacted by the oil spill.

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