The Qatar Whale Shark Research Project, led by the Ministry of Environment (MoE) and delivered in partnership with Heriot Watt University and the Maersk Oil Research and Technology Centre (MO-RTC), yesterday unveiled a documentary film and project website focusing on the whale sharks in the Al Shaheen oil field off the coast of northern Qatar.
More than a hundred whale sharks can be observed feeding at the surface around the offshore platforms, one of the largest such aggregations in the world.
The film, A Gathering of Giants: The Qatar Whale Shark, aims to raise awareness about the local presence of the world’s largest fish that was discovered by offshore workers in 2007. It was shot last year by Emmy Award-winning underwater cameraman Michael Pitts.
Sponsored by MO-RTC, the Qatar Whale Shark Research Project’s 26-minute film can be watched online at the project’s website (www.qatarwhalesharkproject.com), which offers pictures and information on the ongoing research projects and their findings.
“We initiated the Qatar Whale Shark Research Project in 2010 together with David Robinson from Heriot-Watt University to learn more about the whale sharks of Qatar,” said general supervisor of the project Mohamed al-Jaidah. “In the last two years we have achieved some amazing results; some of which have already been published in international scientific journals. We have applied tracking tags to the sharks to learn more about their movements, we conducted aerial surveys to estimate their numbers, [as well as other mechanisms] to identify their diet, [and to see] if the sharks are interacting with other whale sharks populations outside of the Gulf.”
Steffen Bach, Environmental Theme lead at MO-RTC, said the find surprised the international science community as “no one expected whale sharks to be in the warm waters of the Gulf in such numbers.”
He said that while the research project is still in its early phases, conclusions so far have shown that the whale shark aggregations – which have been observed numbering about 150 individuals in one location - swim into the Al Shaheen waters each year between May and October to feed on fish eggs.
“The research conducted by David Robinson and the Ministry of Environment has proven that they aggregate because they are feeding on the eggs of the tuna mackerel; every time they come there is a high concentration of tuna eggs,” Bach told Gulf Times, adding that continued research over the next five years will give more scientific insights into the creature’s habits.
“Among other observations that will soon be published, we have learned that they dive very deep into cooler waters found in the middle of the Arabian Gulf after feeding at the surface where temperatures reach more than 30 degrees in the summer.”
Al-Jaidah said the research project will later determine migration routes, lifespans and behaviour of the fish that can reach lengths of up to 20m and weights of 30 tonnes.
“And when we saw the 150 sharks, we noticed that females stick together in one area and separately from the males which congregate in another,” he said.
Since their discovery in Qatar’s waters, the whale sharks have been observed in and around the Al Shaheen field, Qatar’s largest offshore oil field, which is owned by Qatar Petroleum and operated by Maersk Oil Qatar (MOQ). Some of the platforms are now more than 20 years old and have turned into artificial reefs that host coral growth and have in turn attracted more marine life to serve the Gulf’s biodiversity as both a home and food source.
Bach noted that the during the 12-day shooting of the movie to gather 15 hours of footage, only two days were good for shooting.
“Funny enough, the weather was just like it is today: strong winds and cloudy, most of the time terrible,” he said. “You will not see that in the movie, but the weather then had us waiting out at sea for hours and hours to see the whale sharks with waves pounding.
“I’m really happy to see the movie today because at that time I never would’ve thought that it would materialise but here we are!”
Sheikh Faisal al-Thani, deputy managing director of MOQ, commented: “This is just a start. We want to do more with MOE as part of our CSR – which has three main pillars of environment, health and education. This is important to the environment of Qatar and the Gulf. MOQ has been in Qatar for more than 20 years and while we produce more than one-third of the country’s oil, we want to send a message that yes, we do produce oil but we also care about the environment. In the future we will continue to show support on bigger projects, committing to the fulfilment of the Qatar 2030 Vision.”
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