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September 2005 Vol. 20, No. 9   RSS Feed for Undercurrent Issues
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Dive Boats Hassle Utila’s Whale Sharks

from the September, 2005 issue of Undercurrent   Subscribe Now

The whale sharks off Utila, Honduras, are coming under daily attack from dive boats, hounding the sharks in their relentless pursuit to let their patrons swim with the sharks. Their practices pose a risk to both shark and diver alike. Unless action is taken soon, Utila could either lose one of its most precious resources or have a human fatality on its hands.

The whale shark became protected under Honduran law in 1999. This law did not, however, impose regulations for in-water encounters by the diving industry. So dive boats prowl the waters the north of the island, while the captains look for diving seabirds and the "boil," where hundreds of bonito tuna round up small fish into a bait-ball at the surface. In the midst of the boil, whale sharks can be spotted, mouths open wide, feeding on the whitebait. Other sharks are also there.

Up to seven boats will jostle for position, surrounding the whale shark, ready to spill 70 or more divers into the water. A diver on a recent trip with Shark Diver magazine was attacked by what was believed to be either a silky or mako shark on entering the boil. She suffered a broken leg and lacerations.

Steve Fox, from the Beach Front Dive Resort, which was hosting the expedition, claimed that "no amount of guidelines would have helped." D'Arcy Kelly, from the Bay Islands College of Diving (BICD), disagreed, saying that the chances of an attack could be reduced greatly if swimmers entered the water two at a time, "rather than all eight at once making a big commotion."

Spotting a whale shark can be very lucrative for boat captains, who receive generous tips from their patrons. Luke Tipple, marine biologist at the Whale Shark Oceanic Research Center on Utila, has witnessed boats entering the boil at great speeds when swimmers were in the water with the sharks, their propellers only narrowly missing them.

Western Australia, Mexico, the Philippines and Belize have imposed strict guidelines for whale shark encounters. In Western Australia, boats must observe exclusive 250m contact zones around the shark, in which only one boat can operate at a time. The vessel must not approach at more than eight knots and must stay 30m from the shark. Swimmers are limited to ten at any one time.

Jim Engle, owner of BlCD, has established Utila's Whale Shark Oceanic Research Center to monitor whale shark encounters. They are tagging the sharks to learn more about their behavior and migration. The center is lobbying for legal guidelines and regulations for whale shark encounters. Finding a lack of interest on Utila, the center has been pressing the Honduran Fisheries Ministry to implement legislation on encounter guidelines for all diving centers operating whale shark trips.

Meanwhile, responsibility for safe encounters lies ultimately with the divers themselves. They should question the dive operator's procedures and dive only with those centers that respect the whale shark. Tipple says that with the Bay Islands College boats and selfenforced guidelines, "encounter times with the sharks have increased substantially."

A longer version of this article, written by Mark Burton, appeared in the British magazine, Diver (www.divernet.com).

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