An Update From Mafia Island - The In Country Team Look At The Problems Facing Whale Sharks

An Update From Mafia Island - The In Country Team Look At The Problems Facing Whale Sharks

Posted by Connor Whelan on Jul 3, 2017

We have received news from the project site on the Mafia Island Whale Shark Project and the team have told us more about the issues facing these majestic animals. Read up and see just how bad the plight of the whale sharks has become through the words of someone who has been there to witness it first hand.

Whale sharks are huge, beautiful, fascinating creatures. They have the very appropriate nickname – ‘gentle giants of the ocean’. Swimming with these docile sharks fills us with awe and reminds us of how little we know about our world. How can there still be such a large animal, about which we know almost nothing? The little information we do have (collected mainly by observing and sampling sexually immature juveniles in feeding aggregations at various places around the world), tells us only enough to make educated guesses. We do not know where they breed, where they birth and where young females live and what happens to the adults, especially the males. We don’t even know how many there are, but we do know roughly how many thousands are slaughtered for their meat and fins every year. Whale Sharks are an endangered species (CITES Appendix II and IUCN Red List of protected species, in other words classified as ‘Endangered’) but there are no international laws that prevent people from harming or fishing them. Some countries do have local laws protecting whale sharks, however these are seldom enforced. There is an international code of conduct for whale shark tourism but compliance is voluntary and far too few try to adhere to it. It is therefore no surprise that the majority of the whale shark that we see around Mafia Island, off the coast of Tanzania, bears the scars of human disregard and exploitation.

Whale Shark Stuck In Net

At the project, we Interns (volunteers) spend countless hours in the water with the Whale Sharks of Mafia Island. Although some Interns come for only 2 weeks, some of us stay for three months and between us all, we go out almost daily for nearly five months of the year. We primarily take guests out to swim with them, however we also take identification photographs for the database, record code of conduct violations and monitor how the sharks respond to human interaction. These activities give us a unique perspective on the sharks. We swim with them so often that we can recognise many individuals based on their spot patterns and scarring. We try to photograph any distinctive features and keep track of repeated sightings of the same individuals. We are able distinguish new injuries from old ones and it breaks our hearts to see the story of abuse grow.

When I see a whale shark on any given day my feelings are as follows: First excitement that I can swim with such majestic animals and have the privilege of doing this so often and I revel in their grandeur for a moment. I then take a few more minutes to observe the shark; is it relaxed; is it swimming erratically or in a figure eight pattern, around and in plankton, or in a straight line (on a mission); what would be the best way to interact with this animal responsibly? When there is another boat already with the animal, we usually stay on-board watching, often with a mounting sense of unease, as people harass the shark. If there is no other boat, we get into the water at a discrete distance and swim to the animal. A quality interaction with a wild animal in nature takes patience and respect and we are more than happy to oblige. Once I am with the animal I again wallow in a moment of ‘wow, this really is such a beautiful creature’.

Tanzania Whale Shark Swimming

When we’ve finished indulging ourselves we start taking ID pictures and look for scars and wounds. Sure enough, we are almost always met with the familiar sight of old scars or fresh wounds. This makes me sad and it also serves to remind me that humans really can suck. We see scarring on these animals so often that it has reached the point where we simply can’t believe that there are so many. To quote Nicole Schröter, who has taken many of these photographs, “I can’t remember the last time I saw a shark that doesn’t have any scars or wounds”. This I find scary.

Whale sharks aggregate in the channel between mainland Africa and Mafia Island to feed. Unfortunately their presence here (and the rise of whale shark tourism) has not warranted any change in boat traffic or increased regulation of harmful fishing practises. The animals are so often rammed by boats, sliced by propellers and caught inside large fine-mesh ‘sardine nets’. Fishermen do not care that they trap the whale sharks in their nets, only that they get them out in the end. They actively look for the whale sharks and surround them with their nets because the sharks are surrounded by smaller fishes. This sometimes becomes desperate and violent, as the fishermen’s priority is to preserve the condition of their livelihood – the net and catch, and not the shark. So many sharks have also been mutilated for portions of their fins. If you cut off the tips of the dorsal and pectoral fins you get a beautiful fin seemingly belonging to a smaller variety of shark: Easy money, right? With no laws here to regulate this practise, they suffer without any protection or even sympathy. Alongside scars, we also get to see fresh and open wounds. Small mercies come in the form of their continued presence here. It is becoming obvious that we need to take better care of these animals, and that starts by getting more people to take notice of their current treatment.

So, let us introduce you to some of our regulars. We have named them according to very obvious scars that mar their bodies. Something that in itself shines a spotlight on human unkindness.

Meet Cher, a rare female, with her bashed and ‘botoxed’ lip. It’s hard to say for sure how this disfiguration happened. It could have been caused by a rope, a machete or a propeller.

Cher The Whale Shark

Then there is Kipanga (a Swahili word meaning Machete). As you can probably guess, he is named after the instrument used to leave the many slashes all over his body.

Tanzania Whale Shark

We also have ‘Flatty’, named for the new shape of his Dorsal fin. But note also the tattered state of his tail where someone (s) has amputated multiple ‘fin’ samples to dry and sell. The tips of his fins and the triangle cut out of his tail make good impressions of the fins of smaller shark varieties and would draw a reasonably good price, enough to motivate poor fishermen at least.

Flatty The Whale Shark

And finally Nick. He has symmetrical ‘nicks’ in both his Pectoral fins as well as a distinct dent in his dorsal. Like Kipanga’s fins, the missing tips of each of his Pectoral fins were likely removed to be sold. The dent in his dorsal fin however is most probably the result of a boat collision.

Nick the whale shark

These are only a few of the endless examples we could use to show the intense scarring of Whale Sharks. The most commonly injured areas are the huge caudal (tail) fins, simply because they are the first thing to break the surface of the water but the dorsal fins are also very often damaged.

But sadly, this is not a restriction. We also find scarring on all other parts of their bodies, like the dorsal ridges and the keel.

The most common scars are subtle abrasions (or rubbing), which can be found on many parts of their body. This is caused by being caught in fishing nets or being bumped by boats travelling at high speed. In the case of a net, as the shark tries to find a way out, it swims desperately alongside it to find an opening. They are so panicked that they will persevere to the point that they pull off bits of their own skin.

It is safe to say that the Whale Sharks of Mafia Island are being abused often and regularly. Even with these images we are incapable of truly representing the extent of damage that is being caused. Scars are signs of old wounds, this might lead one to think that the abuse is not being inflicted now… but the fresh wounds we see and the fact that these scars are ever increasing are sure signs that injuries are being produced on a regular basis. Isn’t it time to put our thinking caps on and assume a greater share of responsibility?

Complaining, without coming up with a potential solution, is just whinging, right, so can I ask anyone and everyone who has been to swim with whale sharks in Mafia and has photographs of scars or wounds to please contact us at and to send a photo and also write a letter to our District Executive Director, Mr. Eric Mapunda, c/o Mafia District Council, Mafia, Tanzania and express your concern for the welfare of the Whale Sharks of Mafia Island and the future of Whale Shark tourism if the matter is left unaddressed.

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