Dream of swimming with whale sharks? Know that it’s a nightmare for them
Recognizing that tourism drives their economy, the Maldives protected the whale shark in 1995 – they are off-limits to fishermen (15 years later, the Maldives banned the capture of any species of shark). Dive masters, conservation groups and environmentally aware tourists think setting regulations to protect the whale shark from mass-tourism harassment and propeller injuries should be the next step in protecting the species. Several charities have been working with the Maldives government to try to set whale-watching regulations that would create a sustainable ecotourism model. But progress has been slow.
The government may be wary about regulations that would limit whale-shark tourism. “Having spent a lot of money to go on the excursion, guests will expect to see a whale shark,” said James Hancock, operations manager for the MWSRP. “This is translated into pressure that is felt by guides, the tour companies and before you know it, a see-at-all-costs situation emerges in which best-practice encounter behaviour becomes secondary.”
Various ideas to protect the Maldives whale sharks from mass tourism are being floated. One would see permits issued to the boat captains, allowing them to visit whale shark hot spots only at certain times, on certain days, to prevent overcrowding. The system could be monitored by government rangers, or employees of an international organization such as UNESCO.
In the meantime, groups such as MWSRP are hosting training days for whale-shark guides, urging them to give the sharks plenty of space to manoeuvre and prevent divers from touching them or using flash cameras that can startle them, among other practices.
But self-regulation may not be enough to protect the whale sharks as more resorts fill the 1,200 islands in the Maldives and tourist numbers rise; most of those tourists want to see big fish and a selfie with a whale shark is the ultimate prize.
Jacob Dalhoff Steensen, the chief marketing officer for Paralenz, a Danish maker of underwater digital cameras, and a former scuba-diving instructor in the Maldives, says he sees fewer whale sharks in the archipelago every year and thinks a permit system should be the minimum requirement. But what he really thinks is that these majestic and endangered giants should be ignored. “We should really just leave them alone,” he said. “They’re so rare.”