Identifying Whale Sharks

Picture of By Matthew Essex

By Matthew Essex

Salty Swims Co Founder

Nothing prepares you for your first time in the open ocean with a whale shark. Their immense size, entrancing pattern and the way they move slowly through the water, makes time seem as though it’s come to a stop. Remember to breath!

The ocean is a wonderfully mysterious place, and where there is mystery, there are fables, superstitions and bewildering traditions. I first learned about the curious custom of whale-shark-singing while diving in Thailand. It was ironic, now that I think about it, as the diver I first learnt this from, had a laugh that bellowed unlike any noise I’ve ever heard, totally unique and shocking but infectious all at the same time. Whether her laugh would have been effective in attracting whale sharks, I have strong doubts, however Billy Joel’s piano man, sung through a SCUBA regulator, seemed to work like a “moth to a flame”! I kid you not, they are BIG Billy Joel fans (excuse the pun) – But, then again, who isn’t!? I had looked for them below the waves for nearly a hundred dives but to no prevail, only to sing the magical words in song “It’s nine-o’clock on a Saturday….” And voila – WHALE SHARK! The next time I tried it – WHALE SHARK! And the next – WHALE SHARK! And every time after that! Give it a try through your snorkel next time you’re in Western Australia and let me know how you get on.

Identifying Whale Sharks – Why so important? How can you help?

Whale sharks are the largest known fish to ever swim the earth’s oceans so why, you may ask, does their species need our help? Sadly, these majestic creatures are currently listed as endangered in the IUCN Red List of Threatened Species, which means that they’re seriously at risk of extinction. The main threats that they face include: Oil & gas drilling, shipping lanes, fishing & harvesting aquatic resources, recreational activities and ingestion of marine debris and micro plastics. More than 50% of their global population, over the last 75 years, has disappeared and the lives of the remaining whale sharks are in our hands.

Luckily, there’s a lot that we can do.

  • If you LIVE or HOLIDAY in WA – Reduce your boat speed and keep an eye out for them
    (especially during the months of March – September).
  • ALWAYS dispose of your rubbish responsibly (otherwise, everything leads to the ocean) and when you can, collect and dispose of any marine debris that you come across.
  • Refuse to consume whale shark products – such as shark fin soup when overseas.
  • Join a WHALE SHARK INTERACTION TOUR – in Australia (where practices are regulated).
    (Part of your fee goes towards whale shark conservation and research).
    Explore your options and book at Salty Swims
    – IMPORTANT: Adhere to the codes of conduct when interacting with whale sharks, CLICK HERE for more.
  • On your Whale Shark Interaction trip – Take some photos and submit them to the Wildbook photo identification library. By donating your photos, you are actively contributing to their conservation.

Identifying Whale Sharks – Wildbook photo identification library

The first thing that you’ll notice as a whale shark comes into view, is their iconic spot patterning and as these spots come into focus, the outline of a giant will start taking form. Just like the fluke of a Humpback whale, these spots are totally unique to an individual shark. Along with size, sex and scarring, this allows scientists to analyse photographed individuals to build a population model, and better understand their lives. This information gives the scientists an insight into whale shark numbers, movement patterns and migration, which in turn helps to formulate a plan towards their survival and conservation.

The most important thing to remember when attempting to photograph a whale shark is to remain at least 3 meters away from the shark – touching or block their path may negatively influence their behaviour. To identify whale sharks more efficiently, the focus is on an area above the pectoral fin (preferably the Left Pectoral Fin). Photographed perpendicular to the shark, this allows software patterning recognition algorithms to identify an individual within a catalog of thousands of images – saving A LOT of time.

Whale Shark
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To submit your Photos/video frames to Wildbook, CLICK HERE. Get this, by supplying your email address, the database can automatically keep you informed of how your data is used and can notify you of when your sighted whale shark is resighted.

Support Cutting Edge Whale Shark Research – Funds raised are used to offset the costs of maintaining this global library and to support new and existing research projects. You can support Wildbook with a One Time Donation or you can adopt – Give your whale shark a nickname and receive updates every time that it’s spotted.


Salty Swims is not associated with Wildbook, as much as we would love to be. We believe that they play a vital role in the conservation of one of the most iconic and most loved species of shark found in Australian waters. The world’s largest fish, just as all the creatures of this planet, needs our help. By supporting organisations such as Wildbook, we can really make a difference. Even by doing something as seemingly insignificant as swimming with Whale sharks on the Ningaloo Reef and donating your photographs!

Save this blog to your bookmarks to refer to later, and book your next Whale shark experience at:


Identifying Whale Sharks – Have you been involved?

If you have taken part in projects like this, or you’re still involved, then please share your experience with us in the comments below. We would love to hear from you.

Thanks for reading. Please leave your comments, we do love to strike a conversation on these topics. And if you have any questions – this is a good opportunity to reach a vast and far-more knowledgeable crowd. My bet is that Wildbook will be reading!?

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