Mark Erdmann swims with a tagged whale shark.

Whale Shark Tracker

Watch in real-time the world’s largest fish, satellite-tagged in eastern Indonesia

© Shawn Heinrichs

We’ve learned a lot

In 2015, Conservation International scientists in Indonesia performed a first: We attached satellite transmitters to the dorsal fins of whale sharks. These transmitters had never been mounted on whale sharks because the species was simply too big to catch — so our scientists partnered with local fishermen who had inadvertently captured whale sharks in their nets, then dived in to attach the transmitters before releasing the sharks. Working with our partners at the Georgia Aquarium, we’ve learned a lot about the charismatic species, including their migratory movements and diving behavior — much of it new to science.​​

Track whale sharks in real-time

CI Sharks Map & Slider

Whale sharks previously tracked

Our fin-mount satellite tags have a maximum battery life of two years. Here’s what we learned from sharks with decommissioned tags.


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The Research

How are sharks tagged, and what have we learned?

How are sharks tagged?

Local fishermen call Conservation International scientists when whale sharks are inadvertently caught in their nets. Before the sharks are freed, scientists attach a satellite transmitter to their dorsal fin, with minimal disturbance to the animals. The transmitters’ batteries last about two years, and data is relayed whenever the shark’s fin breaks the water’s surface.

In 2017, we downloaded 25 months’ worth of high-resolution data on diving and migratory behavior from the tag of one shark, affectionately named Sharky McSharkface — the largest data set ever recorded for this species.

Three young whale sharks looking for a meal
© Shawn Heinrichs

What have we learned?

A satellite tag has shown that “Moby,” a 15-foot male, has one of the deepest recorded dives of any whale shark at nearly 6,000 feet — more than a mile beneath the water’s surface. Other notable findings include:

  • These whale sharks (tagged in West Papua, Indonesia) are not as migratory as many believed. They disperse periodically in different directions, covering distances up to 1,000 miles, often to return to ‘home waters’ in a matter of weeks.
  • They are very individualistic, going their own ways for reasons unknown. We’ve tracked two males of similar ages with utterly different migration habits, one largely staying put since we mounted his tag, while the other has ventured into the western Pacific.
  • The tagging site where whale sharks feed is only a few hundred feet deep, but when they travel farther afield, they dive remarkably deep.

Read more on our blog

Scientists attaching a dorsal fin tracker to a whale shark
© Shawn Heinrichs

Conservation International’s partnership with the Georgia Aquarium

Conservation International collaborated with Georgia Aquarium to carry out health exams and blood draws on 20 wild whale sharks to provide baseline health and ensure animal welfare during our tagging research. The results have indicated that tagging does not cause additional stress to these whale sharks.

Combining the aquarium’s expertise on whale shark care with Conservation Internationals’s experience on the ground in West Papua, we are working together to ensure that whale shark tourism — a growing and lucrative industry — is managed sustainably and doesn’t adversely impact the animals’ health.

Whale sharks in Cendrawasih Bay feeding on baitfish beneath a bagan lift net vessel
© Shawn Heinrichs

Kids adopting whale sharks

Conservation International recently launched a school program in Singapore in which students can adopt individual whale sharks and use this tool to track their progress daily, enabling them to learn about whale shark behavior and the ecosystem on which this species relies. The program aims to encourage greater awareness of the importance of healthy marine ecosystems and humans’ effect on them.

Coral and fish in Melissa's Garden, Raja Ampat, Indonesia
© Keith A. Ellenbogen

What is the Bird’s Head Seascape?

These sharks are tagged in the waters of the Bird’s Head Seascape in West Papua, Indonesia — an area that is home to a wider array of marine creatures than anywhere else in the world. These waters, spanning an area the size of Great Britain, boast 75 percent of all the world’s coral species and more than 1,700 species of fish. This rich biodiversity increases the area’s resilience to stressors such as climate change, potentially offering clues for how coral reefs can adapt to warming seas.

Learn more about the Bird’s Head Seascape