The seasonal aggregations of whale sharks that occur at coastal sites throughout the tropics are the focus of growing ecotourism industries. Genetic and modelling studies suggest that these aggregations may be linked by migration, although the temporal and spatial scales at which this occurs is unknown. Here, we utilized a continuously expanding photoidentification database collected by citizen scientists and researchers to assess connectivity and residency patterns of five whale shark aggregation sites across the entire Indian Ocean at timescales of up to a decade. We also investigated the effectiveness of such an approach in detecting different levels of migration given the population size at each aggregation site. We used the semi-automated program I3S (Individual Interactive Identification System) to compare 6,519 photographs of the unique natural marking patterns of individual whale sharks collected from aggregations at Mozambique, the Seychelles, the Maldives, Christmas Island (Australia) and Ningaloo Reef (Australia). We searched the database for matches between aggregations (migration) and matches between years within aggregations (residency). A Monte Carlo simulation approach utilizing population sizes of aggregations reported by previous studies was used to examine the sample sizes that would be required to reliably detect varying levels of migration rates among four of these aggregations. We found no evidence of connectivity of whale shark aggregations at ocean-basin scales within the time frame of the study, and evidence for only limited connectivity at regional (100s–1000s km) scales. A male whale shark sampled in January 2010 at Mozambique was resighted eight months later in the Seychelles and was the only one of 1,724 individuals to be photographed at more than one site. On average, 35% of individuals were re-sighted at the same site in more than one year. The Monte Carlo simulation study showed that the power of this photo-identification approach was strongly dependent on both the number of individuals identified in aggregations each year and the size of resident populations. The simulation also indicated that there was a higher chance of detecting migrants (if they were present) in aggregations at Ningaloo Reef and the Maldives than the Seychelles and Mozambique given the current numbers of individuals identified each year. The weight of evidence from both our photo-identification study and previous tagging studies suggests regional or small-scale movements (10–100s km) may be more common in whale sharks than movement at ocean-basin scales. We recommend that the management of whale sharks in the Indian Ocean occur at regional scales, and photo-identification databases are expanded to include additional sampling sites within each region.


Article metrics loading...

Loading full text...

Full text loading...

This is a required field
Please enter a valid email address
Approval was a Success
Invalid data
An Error Occurred
Approval was partially successful, following selected items could not be processed due to error