If there’s one big, lovable shark it’s the whale shark. That slow, benign filter feeder is a favorite for eco-touring divers looking for a harmless thrill and cool photo-op. But now researchers are worried the mammoth, polka-dotted fish might be getting a little too much love from human admirers.
Boaters and divers feed whale sharks just yards off Tan-awan beach in the Philippines. Naturally, this has become a huge tourist attraction, and the mass amounts of up-close human interaction has marine scientists sounding the alarms.
At the largest whale shark gathering spot off Cancun, Mexico, a site discovered just a few years ago, permitted whale-shark tour boats now number 200. With each boat carrying up to 10 people, that’s a lot of friends for these largely solitary fish to handle. Not to mention all the boats and divers that don’t bother with permits.
“We have to consider options to reduce the pressure on the whole ecosystem. It is unsustainable,” marine biologist Rafael de la Parra told The Washington Post when discussing the increase in whale shark tourism in Cancun.
The Philippines recently banned the hand feeding of whale sharks. The practice had become widespread among boat captains trying to keep paying tourists happy. The ban was among the recommendations listed in a recent report by researchers at the Large Marine Vertebrates Project in the Philippines.
But as these and other researchers point out, the whale shark’s popularity as a “destination fish” is new, so it isn’t yet known what the long-term consequences of things like frequent visitors or hand feeding might be. Their biggest concerns are changes in feeding, as the sharks could be learning to associate humans with food, and migration, as they could be getting crowded out by too many eager fans. Additionally, lots of boats, and lots of whale sharks that associate boats with food, can lead to devastating injuries.
As Philippine official Gwendolyn Garcia pointed out to the Sun Star, it’s in everyone’s best interest to ensure that whale sharks do not become victims of their own popularity.
“When people see the protection of the environment as their livelihood, they will protect the whale sharks with their lives,” Garcia said.
Whale sharks are found in the warmer climes of oceans around the world. Adults can grow to more than 30 feet long and weigh 9 tons, or about the size of a school bus. Unlike their dangerous cousins, these sharks prefer plankton and the occasional small squid over anything bloody or surfer-shaped.
Video via Scubazoo