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Originally published Friday, May 2, 2008 at 12:00 AM

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Portland scientist coordinates global whale shark project

In the distant underwater murk, the spots appear first, moving in unison like a school of fish. Coming closer, the illusion gives way. A shark the size...

Newhouse News Service

PORTLAND — In the distant underwater murk, the spots appear first, moving in unison like a school of fish. Coming closer, the illusion gives way. A shark the size of a city bus emerges, speckled and crosshatched like a checkerboard from head to tail, cruising fast and effortlessly through the warm sea.

"It's an amazing pleasure to swim with them," says Jason Holmberg, who met his first whale shark while scuba diving in the Red Sea in 2002. The giants — reaching lengths greater than 60 feet — use their cavernous mouths to suck up tiny plankton; they approach divers with curiosity.

"Its eyes will track you; you can look at it, and it will look back at you," he says. "It's like contact with alien life."

Holmberg, 33, is a Portland-based software technical writer with a graduate degree in Arabic studies. From a bedroom office in a small house that he shares with his wife, Melissa, and an Egyptian street dog named Hilmy, he coordinates a global whale-shark monitoring project that is delivering a wealth of information about the mysterious species that lives half a world away.

Holmberg majored in chemical engineering at the University of Michigan but soon took a more passionate interest in Arabic language and Middle Eastern culture. It led him to pursue a master's degree in Arabic studies at Georgetown University and to spend two years in Cairo, Egypt.

He wound up working for a software company in Washington, D.C., in 2000 because it seemed like a more promising way to make a living than trying to apply his Arabic studies. A lover of logic, orderliness and learning, he calls technical writing "a pretty fun job."

He began dreaming up ways to improve whale-shark tracking soon after his encounter in the Red Sea. Eager to see more of the creatures, he signed up for an eco-tourism trip to Mexico with marine biologists who planned to tag the sharks with identifying markers. Daily voyages for a week yielded no sightings.

Meanwhile, researchers were taking advantage of the distinctive spot patterns to identify and track whale sharks. Holmberg read about that work and decided he might be able to write a computer program to recognize spot patterns. It struck him as a fun, accessible project for a self-taught programmer.

Zaven Arzoumanian, an astrophysicist at NASA's Goddard Space Flight Center in Maryland and a friend of Holmberg's, thought it sounded exceedingly difficult. Holmberg had befriended him while studying Arabic at Georgetown University with Arzoumanian's wife.

Holmberg began cold-calling whale-shark researchers to offer help. An Australian named Bradley Norman was the only one who took him seriously.

"Definitely, it was a leap of faith," Arzoumanian says.

Norman, based at Murdoch University in western Australia, had established that spot patterns are as good as fingerprints to identify whale sharks. He had boxes of whale-shark photos taken at Ningaloo Reef — one of the few places whale sharks gather in large numbers every year. Norman scanned dozens of photographs and e-mailed them to Holmberg.

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The programming proved to be as tough as Arzoumanian feared. After a particularly frustrating day, Holmberg went out for a beer with Arzoumanian and one of his astronomer friends, Gijs Nelemans. The Dutch astronomer listened as Holmberg described his problem and offered a suggestion: Why not adapt a program astronomers use to match star patterns?

"Once he pointed us in the right direction, very quickly we had a plan of attack," Holmberg says.

After several months of work, Norman, Holmberg and Arzoumanian launched the program in spring 2004, with the Australian-based conservation group Ecocean.

Now anyone with an Internet connection can upload photographs of whale sharks to Ecocean's photo identification library, on the Web at www.whaleshark.org. To date, more than 1,000 people — many of them recreational divers and snorkelers — have sent images documenting 1,800 encounters with whale sharks worldwide.

Nobody knows how long whale sharks live, how frequently they give birth, how fast they grow, which locations are crucial for breeding, whether they travel in social groups or how many of them cruise the world's tropical oceans.

In a study published in January, Holmberg, Norman and Arzoumanian used the photo-library data to conclude that the population around Ningaloo Reef is holding its own. Whale sharks are listed as vulnerable in the international roster of threatened animals, and an unexplained drop in sightings in some waters has prompted concerns about declining numbers. Citizen scientist Holmberg is the lead author of that report in Ecological Applications.

Copyright © 2008 The Seattle Times Company

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