Whale shark scientists swarm to Atlanta from across the globe

Elizabeth Clingham was determined to talk about whale sharks. And she didn’t let a whale of a commute get in her way.

The marine conservationist from St. Helena — a small island 1,200 miles off the southwestern coast of Africa — traveled five days by “mail boat” from her native land just to get to South Africa. From there, after a brief stay, she flew 11 hours to London. And after a nine-hour layover, she boarded a plane for Atlanta.

Seven days after she first stepped onto a mail boat in St. Helena, Clingham arrived at the Georgia Aquarium in downtown Atlanta to attend the 3rd International Whale Shark Conference, which was held Oct. 6-10.

Like the other 75 delegates from 20 countries who attended, Clingham brought a list of concerns. She was worried about how the sharks, which have become a major tourist draw, might impact her isolated island of 4,000 people once an international airport opens in 2016.

The airport is expected to unleash a flood of divers and snorkelers who want to get close to the gentle but massive filter-feeding sharks. Those tourists — projected to jump from 1,000 a year to 30,000 — will bring unknown consequences to the now-remote island, long protected by its isolation.

“We are a very trustworthy people,” she told the conference, held in the downtown Atlanta aquarium’s Oceans Ballroom. “We don’t lock our doors. We don’t lock our cars. But we know things will change.”

Scientists, conservation officials, economists and even whale shark tour operators presented 48 talks during the three-day conference, the first to be held in the United States. Whale shark conferences have previously been held in Australia and Mexico.

Clingham’s journey and her concerns say volumes about what has happened in the world of whale sharks in the past decade. In that time, there has been an avalanche of research about the big sharks, and millions of people have become acquainted with the species, which was relatively unknown even among scientists, in most parts of the world.

Some 17 million people have passed through the doors of the Atlanta aquarium, the world’s biggest fish tank and the only one outside of Asia to house whale sharks. The aquarium, which opened in 2005, has been praised and criticized for its resident whale sharks, which came from Taiwan where the so-called “tofu sharks” were harvested for food until a few years back.

Whale sharks can be found in most of the world’s warm oceans. They are harmless to humans, but can reach 40 feet in length. They are usually solitary creatures, swimming across vast distances to find food. But they occasionally gather in large groups, called “aggregations” to feast on plankton blooms or seasonal concentrations of fish eggs.

Critics say the ocean-roaming fish should not be kept in tanks, not even ones as large as the Atlanta aquarium’s 6.3 million gallon Ocean Voyager display, which was specifically engineered to hold the giant fish. The tank currently holds four young whale sharks. But two others died there after they were treated for parasites and stopped eating.

Supporters say the aquarium has introduced the polka-dotted fish to millions of people who would otherwise have never heard of the species. That exposure, supporters say, has dramatically increased interest in making sure whale sharks survive in the wild.

The aquarium has funded extensive whale shark research in the field. The aquarium’s chief scientist, Al Dove, still conducts aquarium-backed research off the Yucatan Peninsula where one of the world’s largest whale shark aggregations takes place every summer. Dove helped organize the recent whale shark conference.

“The Georgia Aquarium, from its inception, put an emphasis on learning more about this species,” said whale shark expert Bob Hueter of Florida’s Mote Marine Laboratory. “They have been a major driver in learning more about this animal around the world.”

Hueter, who has used aquarium funding to research whale sharks in the wild, said the aquarium’s opening coincided with the discovery of major whale shark aggregations.

There are about a dozen of aggregation sites across the globe, and many have been transformed into major tourist destinations in the last few years. All of that that coincided with major leaps in technology, like increasingly sophisticated satellite tags used to track and study the sharks.

The conference was followed by an International Union for Conservation of Nature workshop at which one of the delegates debated the international conservation status of the whale shark for the first time in 8 years. It is currently listed as “vulnerable” and is still hunted for its flesh and fins in some parts of the globe.

Hueter told the conference the sharks are under threat in the Atlantic and Gulf of Mexico from unregulated tourism, boat strikes, marine pollution and climate change.