There's always been an air of mystery around whale sharks. They may be the biggest fish in the sea, but they're also quite rare and have a habit of taking solo journeys around the globe's equatorial waters, making them hard to get a handle on. At least, that's what marine ecologist Brad Norman found back in 1994 when he first began studying the species at the isolated Ningaloo Marine Park, some 1200 km north of Perth in Western Australia.

Ningaloo is one of the few places that whale sharks (Rhincodon typus) congregate with any regularity. Despite its remoteness, some 5,000 people make the trek up there each year to swim with the gentle giants and wonder at the constellations of dots and lines that mark their backs. The patterns of those dots are a kind of fingerprint – each shark's back carries its own distinct pattern.

For Norman,...

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