‘Eureka’ moment for St Helena’s whale sharks

June 20, 2018 by Jess Rattle


In early June, the Blue Marine Foundation (BLUE) participated in the first annual NEX Giving Day and succeeded in winning a substantial grant for an ambitious project to research the breeding habits of whale sharks.

NEX – a financial technology company – donated all of its revenue for the day to various charities nominated by NEX employees. Earlier this year, UK charities were invited to submit a research and technology proposal, with BLUE’s proposal focusing on discovering why large male and female whale sharks visit St Helena every year (BLUE supports conservation on the South Atlantic island by funding the St Helena National Trust’s marine programme).

Whale sharks off the coast of St Helena

St Helena is the only place in the world where large aggregations of mature male and female whale sharks are found at the same time and, according to Professor Al Dove of Georgia Aquarium who is leading the St Helena whale shark research, the island is an important place for their breeding cycle but more research is required to understand precisely why. A large number of charities submitted an initial bid and six of these, including BLUE, were selected and each awarded £75 000.

On the eve of World Oceans Day, BLUE’s team showcased the fun side of their work at NEX’s London office through aquatic costumes, marine-themed karaoke, a competitive ocean quiz and an immersive virtual reality experience that plunged participants into the vibrant virtual waters of the Aeolian islands.

BLUE’s immersive virtual reality experience (left); the BLUE team in costume (right)

Later in the evening, all six charities were invited to present their research proposals to a large audience at Old Billingsgate in London in the hopes of winning an additional £75 000 for their cause. BLUE enlisted the help of rock star Simon Le Bon who joined Beth Taylor, BLUE’s St Helena Project Officer, on stage to explain why St Helena’s whale sharks require research and protection. After hearing from all of the competing charities, NEX CEO Michael Spencer announced that NEX would be awarding an additional £75 000 to all six charities, including BLUE – an announcement that was met by a standing ovation.

NEX CEO Michael Spencer standing with Simon Le Bon (left image); Simon Le Bon and Beth Taylor (right image)

This funding secured by BLUE provides an incredible opportunity for the St Helena National Trust to discover why large male and female whale sharks visit the island’s waters every year. The £150 000 will fund a range of activities including:

  • the purchase of 360-degree underwater cameras which will be positioned around St Helena with the aim of recording the elusive mating behaviour of St Helena’s whale sharks;
  • the purchase of satellite tags that will enable the National Trust team to monitor the whale sharks at lower depths than ever before;
  • the purchase of aerial drones to enable the team to find and survey the whale sharks from above;
  • the creation of the world’s first global whale shark mobile phone app that will help to identify and store whale shark information from across the globe;
  • the delivery of education and engagement programmes to better communicate the St Helena whale shark story, both on-island and internationally; and
  • the employment of additional members of the local community to work with the National Trust’s existing team to run the project.
The BLUE team holding their cheque

Whale sharks are the world’s largest and most iconic fish and St Helena is an undoubtedly important place for them and their breeding cycle. The island’s new airport and improved tourism infrastructure will more than likely result in an influx of marine tourists. It is possible that this in turn will lead to increased interest in and pressure on the animals. Very little is known about these amazing creatures and this funding from NEX will give the St Helena National Trust an incredible opportunity to record a real ‘eureka’ moment in marine conservation and to firmly establish St Helena’s Marine Protected Area as a place for the whole world to cherish.

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