Researcher uses laser beams to measure whale shark; photo by ©Simon Pierce

The whale shark is the world’s largest fish, reaching lengths of 40-plus feet. But measuring individual whale sharks accurately as they swim in the ocean has never been simple.

However, scientists have learned that reasonably precise measurements can be obtained by firing laser beams at the gentle giants as they ply ocean currents feeding on plankton.

A team from the Marine Megafauna Foundation recently conducted its laser fieldwork at known feeding sites off Mozambique and Tanzania.


Researcher uses laser beams to measure whale shark; photo by ©Simon Pierce

It measured five whale sharks–measuring from 14 to 30 feet–using a method called laser photogrammetry, which does not harm the subjects.

Christopher A. Rohner, the study's lead author, explained to the journal PeerJ that the method essentially entails using various laser points, and photographs as a scale bar, to obtain accurate measurements.

The research is important for determining actual growth and maturity rates, and monitoring biological differences among whale shark populations around the planet.


Researcher uses laser beams to measure whale shark; photo by ©Simon Pierce

Whale sharks are globally-threatened, and vulnerable to indiscriminate fishing methods. Although the docile creatures have been studied fairly extensively, many mysteries remain about where some of them go, and where they’re born.

As mentioned by Rohner, most whale sharks studied at global feeding sites are juveniles, predominantly male. "Where are the newborn whale sharks?" he asks. "Where are the females? Where are the large, mature males?”

As reported by Discovery, the new laser research method is merely another tool that could prove beneficial to scientists–and, of course, whale sharks–from a conservation standpoint.

Said Rohner: "It's an exciting time to be a whale shark researcher, as we are getting closer to answering some of these big questions."

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