Female whale sharks at Ningaloo Marine Park are being electronically tagged to discover their migratory pathways.
Whale shark principal investigator Dr Mark Meekan's work is being funded by the Western Australian Marine Science Institution, the Australian Institute of Marine Science (AIMS), Apache Energy, CSIRO and the National Oceanographic Administration from the United States.
He said only one in eight whale sharks passing through Ningaloo was female.
"About 80 per cent of the sharks at Ningaloo are juvenile males so Ningaloo Marine Park may be a nursery," he said.
He has taken photographs of hundreds of whale sharks and tagged 55 with satellite tags but is none the wiser about where the females go.
Dr Meekan said there were real population differences across the Indian Ocean.
"Part of our study this year will be to use new techniques to study these genetic differences and discover more about the movements of whale sharks.
"We know that many of the animals show site fidelity, returning to Ningaloo over a period of decades," said.
"Their migratory patterns show that after leaving Ningaloo they head north to Java, Timor and Sumatra in Indonesia, and possibly further afield before returning to Ningaloo."
He said photographic tagging of each whale shark's scars and patterns showed that there were no matches in locations spread across the Indian Ocean. It could mean there was no movement or that there were not enough images in the data base to record the rare occurrence of sharks travelling between aggregations.
"We compared our photo libraries with photo libraries at Christmas Island, the Maldives, Mozambique and the Seychelles but had no photographic matches of our whale sharks with theirs," he said.
"We know that there is some mortality because of fishing in South East Asian nations."
He said one of the best Australian conservation initiatives would be to provide Indonesian villages with whale shark ecotourism businesses.
"Even if we only had one village doing it, it would show that there is a sustainable income from whale sharks that is worth far more than the few cents a kilo they receive when they catch a shark and sell it," he said.
Marine science experts will gather in Exmouth next week for the third annual Ningaloo Research Symposium.
The two-day event, titled Ningaloo into the Future: Integrating science into management, will be held on May 26 and 27.
Twenty-four scientists from the Ningaloo Research Program, which is the largest integrated coral reef study in the Indian Ocean, will present their latest findings.
For further information, please contact:
Dr Mark Meekan, AIMS
Phone: 0429 101 812
Sue McKenna , WAMSI
Phone: 0424 196 771
Wendy Ellery , AIMS Media Liaison
Phone: 4753 4409; 0418 729 265
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