The Whale Sharks of Qatar
Qatar has the biggest whale shark concentration in the world.
According to the Ministry of Environment and Climate Change, Qatar’s concentration of whale sharks reached 600 sharks in 2020 – that is yet to be documented anywhere else in the world – and more than 100 sharks have been observed in Al Shaheen oilfield. The giant white-spotted fish annually congregate 90 km away from land between the months of April and September.
The ministry is calling on the community to not approach shark gatherings if spotted and to not publicise their location. Any sighting should be reported directly to the call centre at 184. Any unsettling noises are forbidden near the areas of the sharks’s gatherings to ensure their safety and wellbeing.
The area that hosts the gigantic white-spotted fish has been closed to the public until recently. Discover Qatar, the Destination Management Company (DMC) for Qatar Airways, launched its ‘Discover the Whale Sharks of Qatar’ tour, offering all marine lovers the chance to see the gigantic white-spotted fish from a luxurious ‘Private Charter’ yacht or a ‘Daily Explorer’ tour on a high-speed catamaran. Excursions opened in May 2022. Check the Discovering Qatar website discoverqatar.qa for a chance to get up and close to these majestic creatures in Qatar.
While these magnificent creatures are the biggest fish in the ocean, they are also one of the most gentle and majestic creatures that you will find underwater.
The reason this region attracts so many whale sharks is because of its unique ecosystem. The average seawater temperature in the gulf averages between 32-34°C during the summer months. However, the seawater around the whale shark viewing location is a much cooler 27°C – perfect for fish to breed. It is the abundance of fish eggs, the whale sharks number one source of food, which attracts them to the area.
Qatar Whale Shark Research
In 2010, Qatar Whale Shark Research began as a collaboration between the then Ministry of Environment and David Robinson from Heriot-Watt University, who approached the ministry to authorise research on whale sharks in Qatar, specifically Al Shaheen oilfield north of Qatar, as his field of study.
The heat makes the offshore oil platforms resemble a fata morgana, which is a superior mirage or optical phenomenon. These immense steel structures have been in the region for almost 20 years and their inhabitants have played an important part in the establishment of the Qatar Whale Shark Research. Since the 1990s, offshore workers have told stories of giant sharks. Before that, local fishermen were sharing tales of a huge fish seen mainly in the summer months. However, it wasn’t until images of more than 100 whale sharks surrounding the platform taken by Soren Stig made its way to David Robinson, who then made contact with the ministry and it became clear something very unique was happening here. Although whale sharks have been known to frequent Qatari waters, Mohammed Al Jaidah from the ministry was quick to realise the importance of this discovery, and so together they formed the Qatar Whale Shark Research project in 2010.
Research started in May 2010 and entailed several satellite trackers being attached to the whale sharks. The biodiversity of Al Shaheen was also studied and ‘fingerprint images’ were taken – a photograph of the side of the shark that identifies individuals. At the end of the season in September 2010, upward of 150 individuals had been identified through fingerprint images and DNA samples.
Operated by the North Oil Company, Al Shaheen oilfield, is situated off the north east coast of Qatar and is one of the largest and most complex of its kind in the world. Its 100 mn barrels per annum comprise 45% of Qatar’s oil production. Public access and fishing is banned around the platforms. Thousands of colourful fish find food and shelter between the sponges and soft coral that grow on the subsea structures. Barracudas, jacks and sharks patrol the perimeters waiting to pounce on the unwary. The platforms essentially function as artificial reefs – a marine oasis of life in a desert sea.
Consequently, in 2011, the Maersk Oil Research and Technology Centre (Maersk Oil formerly operated Al Shaheen oilfield) and the then Ministry of Environment signed a Memorandum of Understanding becoming sponsors and co-researchers of this project, and to shed more light on the biodiversity in Al Shaheen area and the secrets of the whale sharks.
About Whale Sharks
Whale sharks (Rhincodon typus) are the largest shark, and indeed largest of any fish alive today. They feed on plankton, which are a collection of tiny organisms that live at and beneath the surface of lakes, rivers, ponds and oceans across the planet. The distribution of whale sharks indicates the presence of plankton and the overall health of our oceans. Whale sharks are found in all the tropical oceans of the world. Their white spotted colouration makes these gentle giants easy to distinguish, and popular with snorkellers and divers at sites where the sharks aggregate off the coast.
The sharks travel large distances to find enough food to sustain their huge size, and to reproduce. According to the World Wildlife Fund (WWF), the maximum size of whale sharks is not known, but could be as large as 20 m. Females give birth to live young, but this has never been observed. Where pupping occurs and where the youngest animals situate remains a mystery, as they are very rarely found. Adults are often found feeding at the surface, but may dive to 1,000 m. Whale sharks are protected from fishing in many countries these days, but are in decline in some areas. Source: World Wildlife Fund (WWF)
Author: Ola Diab
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