We experienced a very interesting incident a few weeks back during our survey of Cenderawasih National Park. We were there to explore sites for a new dive guide to the Bird’s Head Seascape, which will include Cenderawasih, Raja Ampat and Triton Bay. Fifteen thousand-square kilometer Cenderawasih is Indonesia’s largest marine park and, for the moment, the biggest attraction is its resident whale shark population. Yes, resident. According to fishermen in Kwatisore, a smaller bay within Cenderawasih, the whale sharks are there all year long. It seems that the fishermen believe whale sharks bring good luck, so they feed them small, anchovy-like fish called ikan puri. The sharks show up just before dawn, circling their boats for hours, almost like pets waiting for a handout.
But the largest fish in the ocean is not a pet. In fact, whale sharks are endangered and have been on the CITES Appendix II list for nearly a decade. I was quickly reminded of this when a crew member grabbed one of the Cenderawasih shark’s dorsal fin and began stroking it while the shark slurped the fish being tossed overboard. Titus, the park ranger traveling with us, went ballistic. I didn’t catch all of the conversation (my Bahasa Indonesia is still limited), but the gist of it was, “Are you crazy? You aren’t supposed to touch the wildlife!”
Who knew that a desire to feed and touch wildlife transcended cultural boundaries? I thought it was only something that privileged, bored westerners wanted to do. Apparently not, but I still do not understand what is it about getting close to a wild, albeit gentle, animal that makes humans from all walks of life try to physically interact with it. What ever happened to gazing in distant wonderment? I realize that for decades this discussion has taken up many pages in scuba publications, but to me it is still unresolved.
The way we relate to animals says a lot about us. A long while back humans went beyond the point where just observing nature was enough. We wanted to be entertained by “wild” animals, hence diving donkeys, circuses and Sea Worlds. But, the animals appearing in these venues can hardly be called wild. They are performers, even though they misbehave at times. I’m not a fan of shows like these. I restrain myself from staging midnight rescue missions at dolphin theme parks by rationalizing that the captive animal performers are really ambassadors, representatives of the real thing, who fulfill a valuable function by acquainting humans with creatures they otherwise might not have an opportunity to see, even if the contact is made in far from natural surroundings.
I think “see” is the operative word. Some of us are lucky enough to spend a good bit of time in wild places and we have the chance to observe a lot of animals that live freely. People who don’t scuba dive, camp in Yellowstone, go on safari, and so forth have to get their nature fix wherever they can, even if it takes place in a controlled situation. That still doesn’t give us license to cross boundaries. We are ambassadors, too.
On the one hand, physically interacting with a wild animal presents a rare opportunity, mainly for us. On the other hand, these interactions probably harm the animal unintentionally, of course. I won’t go into all the reasons why: damaging their skin’s mucous layer, changing behavior patterns, and just plain old interfering with nature when we shouldn’t. If there is even the slightest possibility that our actions may hurt the animal, why do we do it? Is it a master of the universe kind of thing, or are we just not thinking of anything beyond the one-sided pleasure of an interspecies moment?