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June 2013    Download the Entire Issue (PDF) Available to the Public Vol. 28, No. 6   RSS Feed for Undercurrent Issues
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Whale Sharks Are Getting Too Much Love

good intentions may be having a bad influence

from the June, 2013 issue of Undercurrent   Subscribe Now

An unforgettable experience for most divers is swimming with the magnificent whale shark, the world's largest fish. Eco-tourism generally is viewed as a good thing for them - it protects the species from being killed for food or sport, and pumps money into local economies. But many scientists and even some tour operators say that good intentions may be having a bad influence.

One example is in the formerly sleepy Philippine town of Tan-awan, on the island of Cebu, which now gets hundreds of tourists daily. Whale sharks are lured by fishermen who hand feed them small shrimp. As many as 1600 visitors have shown up at the whale shark "interaction area, "the size of a soccer field, 260 feet off the beach. Eight to 10 whale sharks show up on average, but some mornings see as many as 20. Fees for tourists range from $12.50 just to watch the whale sharks, to $36 (plus normal scuba diving charges) to dive with them. The results: new brick houses line the road leading to the feeding beach.

Alessandro Ponzo, president of the environmental group Physalus told Reuters that it's rare to have so many whale sharks in such a small area , and that the feeding will create long-term problems, such as increased aggression or competition between the animals, and the spread of disease and parasites. "It looks like being in a zoo, a circus, looking at the animal walking up and down, being fed. This is not a natural behavior that you see . . . What you learn here is that wildlife is (fine) to be exploited as a tourism attraction."

Last summer, Andy Murch, a professional photographer who leads shark-themed eco-tours, visited Isla Holbox, a hotspot for whale shark tourism off Mexico's Yucatan Peninsula, and encountered hundreds of whale sharks. But he also estimated that half of the sharks he saw on his first day had been injured or were scarred from what appeared to be collisions with boats or boat propellers. "Fin cuts, back scars, parts of fins missing," Murch e-mailed the Washington Post.

Help whale sharks out by sending your
photos of them to the Whale Shark
Photo-identification Library, which
marine biologists use to learn more
about the animals.

Eli Martinez, who runs Shark Diver magazine, also told the Washington Post that the Yucatan has become a sort of Wild West of eco-tourism. "I feel a huge responsibility, because we really helped promote the place. Now we have to ask, 'Are we doing a good thing or a bad thing?' "

Duane Silverstein is director of the nonprofit Seacology, for which Undercurrent raised more than $30,000 to buy a series of large demarcation buoys to warn cargo ships to stay clear of the whale shark population in near Holbox. Once these buoys are deployed, official navigation charts would also denote the area as a whale shark reserve (read more details in the September 2010 article "Save the Whale Sharks"). But the project is on hold because it still needs approval from Mexico's commerce department and its Coast Guard. "We were told that, in Mexico, no one gets approval for anything within a few months before and after a presidential election, so we're just waiting for those," Silverstein says. "The Coast Guard did help put the anchorage down in deep waters, but we can't attach the buoys until they get Commerce approval. It's very frustrating."

One area that handles whale shark tourism well seems to be Ningaloo Reef in Western Australia. A five-year study by the Australian Institute of Marine Science and the University of Western Australia found that that eco-tourism, when well regulated does not affect whale sharks and their migratory patterns. Whale shark tourists at Ningaloo number 17,000 a year, generating $6 million each season for the tourism industry there. Still, the researchers found that whale sharks which frequently encountered tourists are just as likely to return to the reef as sharks that only interact with a few humans.

Jason Holmberg, director of the nonprofit ECOCEAN, says Ningaloo is a model because it has a strict protocol for boats and snorkelers. "They must stay in line and follow the queue. Then after dropping people off in the water, boats must move to a separate location. After going back to pick up the snorkelers, they get back into the queue." But he's more concerned about snorkelers' safety than whale sharks. "A boat strike will hurt but not kill a shark, but it could be much more tragic for a human. I've seen plenty of times when dive boats have come close to running over snorkelers."

How can you be a better eco-tourist when it comes to swimming with whale sharks? Holmberg says to visit places where there are set and enforced regulations. Look online for dive operators advertising that they follow a good code of conduct. When on the boat, watch that the captain is following the code of conduct. If you're in the water and see too many boats clustered too close together, then get out of the water.

You can also help by sending Holmberg your photos of whale sharks. He is in charge of ECOCEAN's Whale Shark Photo-identification Library, an individually catalogued visual database of whale sharks. It's used by marine biologists to analyze whale shark encounter data to learn more about the creatures. Holmberg stresses that any photo, even if you don't think it's a work of art, is worth sending in - 70 percent of them are turned into usable data. "We need boring shots of whale shark flanks, because each one has a lot of scientific information."

And if you report a shark whale sighting, ECOCEAN collects your e-mail and will let you know the name of the shark, if it's registered in the database, and then notifies you when "your" whale shark has been re-sighted. To get more information, go to www.whaleshark.org.

-- Vanessa Richardson

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