Whale sharks, a threatened species that can grow as big as a bus, have become so wildly popular with tourists that scientists, environmentalists and even eco-tourism operators are calling for new limits on human contact.
The massive polka-dotted fish roam the world’s warm oceans as solitary creatures. But they occasionally gather in large groups, or aggregations, to feast on everything from plankton to fish eggs. As the aggregation sites have become known, tourists have flocked to them, with tour operators from Mexico to the Maldives selling opportunities to swim “with the world’s biggest shark.” The slow-moving whale sharks are filter-feeders and pose no danger to humans. They are found in all of the world’s temperate seas, though scientists are unsure how many exist, where they breed or where they give birth.
Where sharks meet to eat.
“Suddenly everyone has this on their bucket list,” said Brent Stewart, a scientist at San Diego’s Hubbs-SeaWorld Research Institute, who has studied whale sharks in half a dozen countries. “People are willing to pay money for this kind of eco-tourism, and now you see these unintended consequences. We have seen a frenzy in all these areas.”
In the Philippines, some boat captains have begun hand-feeding the big sharks to keep them nearby for paying tourists. That has horrified scientists, who fear it will interrupt the sharks’ migratory behavior. Some have signed a petition demanding the practice be banned, and Philippines fisheries officials recently began looking into the hand-feeding. In Kenya, some tour operators have proposed corralling the big sharks in fenced-off lagoons and hauling in paying tourists to swim with the trapped fish.
Nowhere, perhaps, are the tourism-vs.-sharks problems more apparent that off Mexico’s Yucatan Peninsula, where one of the largest aggregations occurs. The site is near Cancun, one of the Caribbean’s top tourist sites. Millions of vacationers are within a 45-minute boat ride of the area of open ocean where, from May through September, the big sharks congregate by the hundreds near Isla Mujeres.
This gathering spot, or “afuera,” was little known until three years ago, when scientists and some tour operators discovered the site. Newspaper articles, television reports and YouTube videos broadcast the news. Tourists began arriving by the tens of thousands and a new eco-tourism industry was born.
There are now more than 200 permits for whale shark tour boats — most carry eight to 10 people — in the Cancun area, according to Mexican officials. Because the afuera (Spanish for “outside”) occurs outside national park boundaries, it is not always clear which government agency is responsible for the well-being of the animals. Complicating the problems are that dozens of boats without permits often join the fray.
The Mexican government has established rules about how many boats can approach a shark and how many swimmers can snorkel near the animal. But scientists say that when the sharks are few and the people are many, those rules often go out the window.