insight - Brad Norman
Written by Max Veenhuyzen
occupation - Marine Biologist
While the Gulf may have forged its international reputation on oil, there are those who believe the region’s future lies in a different and rather unlikely resource beneath the seas.
Brad Norman doesn’t look like your typical scientist. When we meet at a suburban cafй near his home in the seaside West Australian suburb of Cottesloe, Brad’s attire is beachcomber casual. With his black zip-up hoodie, khaki boardies, and designer thongs, he looks more like a surfer counting down the weekends to his next Bali trip than an award-winning and internationally recognised man of science. But while his garb may be relaxed, he’s serious about his station in life as a marine biologist. And why ‘station’ rather than ‘job’?
Firstly, his commitment to his scientific research goes beyond that of a regular nine-to-five clock watcher. Secondly, he hasn’t been paid all that much for the countless hours he’s poured into his work over the years. “The ocean is my life, whether it’s for work or play,” he says. “It’s something I feel we need to make every effort to conserve. I live, work, and breathe the ocean. I want it to be around and healthy forever, and if I can play a very small part in that, that’s where my efforts will lie. I want people to know that the marine environment is a wonderful place, but it’s also a fragile place.”
For Brad, his role in preserving the high seas for future generations is uncovering the mysteries that surround the largest fish in the ocean, the whale shark, and using his knowledge to protect the vulnerable – just one step away from endangered and three from extinction – species. While the name ‘whale shark’ may sound intimidating, those who have had the privilege of swimming among these creatures and seeing them up-close will know these giants of the deep pose little threat to humans.
“As far as the length goes, there have been reports of a whale shark measuring more than 18 metres, however the largest I have ever swum with is about 11.5 metres," says Brad. These 20-tonne creatures, whose ancestry is traced back to the Jurassic period, are filter feeders, with a diet primarily of krill and plankton. They obtain their food by swallowing seawater with the mouth and expelling it through the gills at the rate of 6,000 litres an hour, and retaining the micro-organisms that they then feed on. But while the whale shark itself is immense, so too is the lack of knowledge about the creature, and it is in this area where Brad has excelled.
ECOCEAN, founded by Brad, has at its heart a pioneering technology called, quite simply, ‘Photo ID library’. Brad explains: “Anyone who swims with the whale sharks anywhere in the world can become an ECOCEAN research assistant simply by taking a photograph of the whale shark, noting the date and location of sighting, and submitting it to the ECOCEAN library.”
The Photo ID library employs the same base technology used by NASA to map stars for the Hubble telescope. Indeed, the NASA team worked with Brad, not to read star patterns but, instead, the unique patternation of white markings on each whale shark’s dorsal fin.“Using the ECOCEAN Photo ID library, we’ve seen many whale sharks return to Ningaloo Reef [off Western Australia] in successive years,” says Brad. “In fact, one individual, identified as A-001, has been returning to Ningaloo almost every year since 1995.”
Although whale sharks are starting to be seen with some regularity in different spots around the world,
the majority of their time is spent in the recesses of the ocean away from prying human eyes. (Unlike whales and dolphins, evidence collected so far suggests that whale sharks have no real need to come to the surface).
So when reports of large whale shark numbers in the Arabian Gulf region started to trickle through the scientific grapevine, Brad and the rest of the (admittedly small) international whale shark fraternity started to get excited.
Perhaps of most interest was a picture taken by someone on an oil rig off Qatar, showing hundreds of whale sharks frolicking in the Gulf; proof, according to Brad, that the region could be the next global whale shark hotspot.
He’s convinced these sightings are no fluke, and is calling for the establishment of a whale shark research centre in the region. In addition to being able to help scientists learn more about these majestic creatures, he believes such a move would also offer further eco-tourism benefits for the region. “If implemented and managed the right way, whale shark eco-tourism is economically sustainable for both the stakeholders and the local community, and environmentally and ecologically beneficial for the species too,” he says. Through Brad’s research, he has been able to prove that whale sharks return to the same location year after year. His belief is that an industry based around this renewable maritime resource has more to offer the community than the one-off value that the animal would fetch in a fishery. Yet while Brad has personally invested and sacrificed so much in his quest to protect the world’s oceans, it was his ECOCEAN initiative that saw the West Australian named as a Rolex laureate in 2006.
Dubbed ‘citizen science’ for its ability to empower everyday humans with the knowledge needed to become research assistants in one very cool global science project, half an hour to browse the website and getting hold of a decent underwater camera is all it takes to join in the merriment.
“I’m only one researcher in one place at one time,” Brad says. “The beauty of our conservation/research programme is that you don’t have to be a Rhodes scholar or a rocket scientist to be an active participant in something that can really help conserve the biggest fish in the ocean.”
Oryx readers are invited to join in and submit images to www.whaleshark.org.
ROLEX AWARDS FOR ENTERPRISE
Established in 1976, these awards recognise entrepreneurial spirit around the world. Each year, five laureates and five associate laureates are named for their achievements in the fields of science, technology, exploration, the environment, and cultural heritage.
From deep space to deep sea, the ECOCEAN photo library is powered by the same astronomical pattern-matching algorithm developed in 1986 to help NASA scientists match disparate images of stars made with instruments such as the Hubble Space Telescope.
After months of reprogramming, the Groth algorithm was adapted from its initial task of identifying star patterns to recognising and analysing the white spots on a whale shark’s hide.
“We just adapted that from white spots on a black night sky to white spots on the flank of a whale shark,” says ECOCEAN information architect Jason Holmberg, who worked alongside algorithm developer Zaven Arzoumanian, an astrophysicist at NASA Goddard Space Flight Center.
Now that that the technique has been proven with whale sharks and is yielding results, the ECOCEAN team wants to extend it to other species. The same technique can be applied to help researchers track leopards in Sri Lanka, giant Eurasian trout in Mongolia, and ocean sunfish in the Galбpagos Islands. Indeed, a project in Canada is already underway to track polar bears from their whisker patterns.