Rolex is synonymous with adventure and their Laureate Awards support many individuals in their quests to protect some of our planet’s endangered species. In the case of 2006 winner, Brad Norman, there is none bigger than his chosen subject, and passion, the whale shark.

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The Rolex Award allowed the Australian marine scientist to create a world-first citizen science project to observe, reveal and record these rare, gentle giants to help conserve them. Citizen science brings together the general public and scientists to document, collect and analyse data relating to the natural world. 

With the whale shark, the collective project centered around photographing and studying their unique pattern of spots, or stars, that is unique to each shark. This feature caught the attention of Brad Norman, presenting him with the opportunity to track the movements of individual whale sharks through photography.

Using mathematics employed in the Hubble Space Telescope, he helped to pioneer an unique system that identifies and records any individual whale shark photographed by any person anywhere in the world. The database has recorded 75,000 sightings and records of 12,000 individual whale sharks pictured by 9,000 citizen scientists, researchers and volunteers in 54 countries.

It has become one of the largest marine wildlife datasets of any single species and contributed enormously to identifying whale shark hotspots around the world. The study has helped scientists and conservationists understand the behaviours of this magnificent sea creature, which can reach up to 40 feet as an adult. This is vital to preserving their very existence.  

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Brad Norman has pursued the mysterious whale shark for over 25 years, with very little known about them prior to his single-minded, dedicated mission. It’s still not known where they give birth and nurture their youngest. He’s stated:

“The first time I jumped in the water and swam with a whale shark, seeing and experiencing being alongside the biggest fish in the sea, it really took my breath away … From early on, I believed I could really make a difference to preserve this species. I want to find out more about our oceans and the species within so that we can conserve them for generations to come.”

Whale sharks are normally found in warm-temperate and tropical oceans and migrate thousands of miles to different feeding grounds. These gentle giants move very slowly, mostly alone, at speeds of little more than three miles per hour, searching for small shrimp, fish and plankton which they suck in and filter through using their large, distinctive mouths.

Citizen Science has brought together 38 scientists, including those from the World Wildlife Fund. This project perfectly exemplifies Rolex’s Perpetual Planet initiative that supports individuals and organisations who are using exploration and research to find ways to protect the natural world. The Swiss brand also enabled Brad Norman to partner with another Laureate Award winner, Professor Rory Wilson.

They were able to attach Wilson’s ‘daily diary’ electronic tag, plus satellite tags, cameras and sensors to the whale sharks. For the first time ever, they were able to track the sharks’ migrating habits, population and environment even when they were out of sight. It’s hoped all this information will provide valuable insight, such as the location of their breeding grounds, which will help in their eventual protection.

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Brad Norman has proved relentless as a leader in global efforts to conserve the whale shark. His reports saw the creature added to the International Union for the Conservation of Nature (IUCN) Red List as endangered. Plus, he’s driven efforts to outlaw trade in whale shark products and has advised countries on how to protect their fish.

Sadly, the whale shark’s fin, meat and oil are in demand in some countries. Also, it’s believed that less than 10% of whale sharks born survive to adulthood and sharks are noted for being slow breeders that don’t reproduce often. However, for those that make it, they can reportedly live up to 150 years.

To spread the awareness even wider, Brad Norman has developed online educational campaigns for schoolchildren focused on ocean conservation. Schools can adopt a tagged shark and enter his Whale Shark Race Around the World competition. The need to protect our planet, and the wonderful and unique creatures living upon it, is an issue gaining increasing importance globally.

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Brad Norman’s work, innovation, passion and dedication have contributed enormously to understanding, and protecting, the giants of the ocean. But, the efforts have to continue as he declared:

“It’s all about building interest, drive and desire among the new generation ... trying to educate and show people the beauty of our natural environment and encourage them to be more aware and more driven to protect it. The Rolex Award has been very influential in building the profile of the project and hopefully helping us to get to the point where we’re actually going to save a species.”

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Read more about the awards in our ‘Rolex Laureates 2021’ article