UMS students collect whale sharks database during MCO

KOTA KINABALU: Marine biology students at Universiti Malaysia Sabah (UMS) were supposed to conduct their survey on whale sharks at Pulau Gaya off here, but they had to put it on hold due to Movement Control Order (MCO).

The young researchers, however, managed to record and identify their first official whale shark of the project, MY-065, on a survey on March 13 which was five days MCO being implemented.

After that, they have been taking advantage of the “stay in campus” period updating database of whale sharks sightings in the country.

“It has been an interesting start to the project” said Associate Professor Dr Mabel Manjaji Matsumoto, Interim Head, Endangered Marine Species Research Unit, Borneo Marine Research Institute, 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 snorkelers 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,” she said in a statement.

Those footage can also be uploaded directly onto Wildbook – the online library for global whale shark sightings.

Mabul’s SEA assists database of whale sharks sighting.

A local conservation organisation, S.E.A.S (Sea Education Awareness Sabah), has been assisting the project by going back 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 back through our old footage on social media and tag whale sharks.

“We had a huge backlog with thousands of dives at sites in the Semporna region, including Sipadan, Mabul, Kapalai and the islands of the Tun Sakaran Marine Park. We also went through footage taken in Kota Belud, near Kota Kinabalu.”

Logging data brought back many fond memories of incredible Sabah.

“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!”

Importance of database on sightings.

A footage of a whale shark sighted at Pulau Sipadan in October 2019 provided by a diver enabled identification of this individual shark that had traveled from the Philippines.

It was the first documented case of a whale shark moving between the Philippines and Malaysia.

Gonzalo Araujo, an Associate Research Fellow of the Endangered Marine Research Unit, UMS, and Director of Large Marine Vertebrates Research Institute Philippines (LAMAVE) – based in the Philippines, enthused:

“Old footage would be particularly valuable. It could give us a spatial reference for individual animals, as well as the potential history of their movements too.”

“These results highlight that the importance of information from divers in monitoring programmes should not be underestimated – especially for species such as whale sharks.

“We suspected for a while that there was a link between whale shark populations in Philippines and Sabah. This has given us confirmation that this occurs, and the starting point for more research on the topic.” 


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