Sharks and lasers, not just for entertainment!

In midsummer 2009, under the intense Mexican sun, a whale shark, MXA-182, arrived at Holbox. He is injured. A nasty cut nearly severs his right pectoral fin. His fin eventually heals, but a hole completely through his fin still persists. The hole’s shape earns MXA-182 the nickname of Keyhole.

In 2009, Keyhole is at Holbox to feed. His considerable stature requires a dense food source, such as ghost shrimp and copepods found at Holbox. A year later and every since, Keyhole switched to feeding at Afeura on masses of fish eggs.

I encountered Keyhole two days ago in my first swim with whale sharks in the wild. I arrive at the Afeura excited and cannot get my mask, fins, and snorkel on fast enough. I toss my self over the port side of the boat. Two strong kicks later and I match Keyhole’s speed but only briefly. For once, and with mixed emotions, I am not the largest vertebrate in the ocean. By eye, I can judge that Keyhole is over three times my own length. The height of his tail fin is taller than myself at six feet. But precisely how large is Keyhole?

Why is knowing Keyhole’s length essential to understanding whale sharks? Repeated size measurements of Keyhole, can inform us of his health and feeding opportunities over his life. Whale sharks, like other sharks can actually ungrow. If a whale shark has a bad year, so to speak, the shark can reabsorb some of its cartilaginous skeleton for energy. A 24 foot long whale shark one year may be only 22 feet long the next year. If we have not only Keyhole’s measurements but all of his whale shark friends at the Alfeura, we can also know the age structure of the population. Is it mainly young and shorter sharks? Is the Afeura fun for all ages?

Measuring a formidable ocean beast on the move is at best a challenge and borders on impossible. No matter how many times I ask the whale sharks will not hold still long enough for me to use a tape measure. If I swim at my fastest I have a matter of seconds to minutes along side Keyhole or his colleagues, enough time for one or two photographs. However, I have a secret James Bond style weapon. Lasers.

Two bright green lasers 50 centimeters apart, my camera mounted between them, shine on the side of whale shark. I quickly snap a photo. Knowing the distance between the two green dots on the shark’s flank, allows me to calculate the distance between any other two points in the same photograph, in this case the distance between the fifth gill and the start of the dorsal fin. To be close enough for the green laser dots to show up on the whale shark, doesn’t allow me to photograph the entire animal. But knowing the length from gill to fin and having a simple formula,
allows me to extrapolate the length of the entire animal.

Sharks and lasers, never a more perfect union.

Dr. M (1729 Posts)

Craig McClain is the Assistant Director of Science for the National Evolutionary Synthesis Center, a National Science Foundation supported initiative. He has conducted deep-sea research for 20 years and published over 50 papers in the area. He has participated in and led dozens of oceanographic expeditions taken him to the Antarctic and the most remote regions of the Pacific and Atlantic. Craig’s research focuses on how energy drives the biology of marine invertebrates from individuals to ecosystems, specifically, seeking to uncover how organisms are adapted to different levels of carbon availability, i.e. food, and how this determines the kinds and number of species in different parts of the oceans. Craig’s research has been featured on National Public Radio, Discovery Channel, Fox News, National Geographic and ABC News. In addition to his scientific research, Craig also advocates the need for scientists to connect with the public and is the founder and chief editor of the acclaimed Deep-Sea News (, a popular ocean-themed blog that has won numerous awards. His writing has been featured in Cosmos, Science Illustrated, American Scientist, Wired, Mental Floss, and the Open Lab: The Best Science Writing on the Web. His forthcoming book, Science of the South (, connects cultural icons of South such as pecan pie with the science behind them.

4 comments on “Sharks and lasers, not just for entertainment!
  1. Pingback: Blobologist-approved reads: Sharks and slugs and PhDs | The Blobologist

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  3. Hi,
    I think it’s great that you’re studying the whale sharks. I’m going to Holbox this weekend and hope to swim with them. My question is “What can we do to protect whale sharks?” and how can I be a responsible tourist.

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