Researchers and managers of the world’s biggest fish descended on Exmouth last week for a conference on the science and tourism around the ocean’s gentle giant.

The fifth International Whale Shark Conference ran from May 28-31 and brought together 130 delegates from 21 countries.

The conference, which has previously been hosted in Mexico and Qatar, drew scientists, researchers, government officials and tour operators to the home of whale sharks in Australia to discuss what’s new.

Conference scientific committee chairman Dr Mark Meekan said the conference was not just about the science, but about the management of whale sharks.

“In many places around the world, whale sharks aren’t just important for the ecology of the place but also important money earners,” he said.

“Major eco-tourism industries are based on these animals.

“Here at Ningaloo that industry is worth $25 million a year.”

Dr Meekan, who is also a senior principal research scientist at the Australian Institute of Marine Science, said Ningaloo was seen as best practice in eco-tourism.

“By bringing lots of people from other countries, who perhaps don’t have those same amount of governance, to Exmouth, at least they can see how we go about it, they can talk to other mangers and understand how it’s evolved,” he said.

Minister for the Environment Stephen Dawson officially opened the conference last Tuesday and said fantastic collaborations would no doubt come from it.

“Our scientists locally will learn from the good work that’s happening elsewhere,” he said. “Other people from around the world can learn about the work DBCA, CSIRO and other Australian agencies are doing and hopefully that collaboration will mean we have a better understanding about whale sharks to protect them in the future.”

Topics included conservation planning, threats to whale sharks in the Arabian Gulf, tourism growth in Indonesia and the first- observation of whale shark ovaries, using underwater ultrasonography. Dr Meekan said one of the issues with research was the timeline from being in the field to the findings being published could be up to two years.

“This conference short-circuits all of that,” he said.

“It gets the scientists together and they can talk about what they’re doing right now.”

The conference also gave people the chance to experience a whale shark tour on the Ningaloo first hand, and delegates headed out for the Woodside Day on the Water last Wednesday.