Beautiful. Gregarious. Endangered. As the world’s largest fish and beloved by many, it’s hard to believe that the majestic whale shark finds itself at risk of extinction. This marine mammoth has become synonymous with the tranquillity of the ocean; its very name – ‘shark’ – being deemed contrary to its calm, gentle presence. Unlike other habitants of the deep blue, the whale shark does little to invoke a sense of fear, with tourists flocking to the shores of Africa, the Maldives, Mexico and more for just a glimpse of this mysterious, captivating species. But it is the very admiration of the whale shark’s size and serenity which poses much threat, driving the species ever-closer to obsolescence.
International Whale Shark Day earned its official beginnings in 2012, being declared as such in light of the second International Whale Shark Conference. The conference that year was held in Mexico - one of the best locations on earth to spot this gentle giant - and with the help from global superpowers such as India’s Wildlife Trust and the Australian Institute of Marine Science, the occasion soon began to gain traction. Today, nations such as the Philippines all the way through to the United States celebrate International Whale Shark Day in their own way, from hosting educational events in museums to raising awareness and funds for organisations relating to this incredible animal – but how much can an annual event aid the species, when our day-to-day actions consistently threaten its survival?
In the modern age of technology, aesthetic is king. Bigger is better. The more far-out and otherworldly an experience, the faster those likes and shares will rack up. But in our quest to appear earthier, holier, and more ‘at one’ with the world, we risk leaving behind a trail of detriment.
There was a time where two weeks in the sun would suffice for most families: a ‘flop and drop’-type experience would see us relaxing poolside, sipping on a cocktail while basking in warmer climes to those we know back home. But the turn of the ‘10s saw a boom in adventure travel, and tourists began to seek experiences which would get them closer to nature – by which, the translation could mean ‘closer to elephants. Closer to lions. Closer to the unknown.’ With this desire to see more of what cannot typically be seen, tourists had created the demand for experiences which would take them inches away from otherwise secretive species, their arguable harassment causing a sense of disturbance to previously untouched areas of the world. A quick scroll through platforms such as Instagram will render countless images of tourists getting closer than they should to certain species, pushing the boat out (for want of a better term) simply to satiate their desire for the perfect shot.
Sometimes, these naïve attempts at capturing an ethereal moment alongside an uncommon animal can result in disaster. The subject of one now-infamous shot, a 19-year old Instagram model named Katarina Zarutskie, experienced the downside of these impromptu shoots first-hand whilst enjoying a trip to the Bahamas: when basking in the crystal-blue waters of Staniel Clay, Zarutskie was dragged beneath the surface by a nurse shark which had grabbed a hold of her wrist. The shark squeezed so hard that it drew blood and, had Zarutskie not been more familiar with the ocean (she, apparently, is an avid swimmer), her experience could have ended up far, far worse.
But while Zarutskie has been the subject of ridicule online (she also has been left with fragments of shark teeth in her skin, which could remain there for life), it seems that few have viewed her story as a cautionary tale. In fact, photo opportunities in areas like the Exuma Islands remain immensely popular, with photo-hungry tourists paying little mind to the risks associated with experiences such as the ones described above. Even if more tourists were bitten or, worse, killed by the animal subjects of these photographs, the fault would rarely ever be deemed to fall with the human being in the image – instead, disasters like these only perpetuate the negative stigma associated with animals such as sharks, and still, the world moves on. But what about the lasting impact on the animals roped into these tourist activities?
(A scuba diver 'rides' upon a whale shark's back, in another display of inappropriate tourist activity)
While whale sharks are incredibly docile (they couldn’t even eat a human if they tried – their oesophagus is just a few inches wide, making plankton and krill the only specimens small enough to be devoured), they are still at serious risk of having their habitats destroyed by an influx of visiting tourists. The arrival of boats on the shores of whale shark hotspots have been feared to drive populations away – while whale sharks can be curious, there can be no homes for them when their habitats are wrecked by litter and environmental damage.
The inverse, too, has been noted: on the island of Cebu (Philippines), whale sharks have been recorded as adjusting their migratory patterns, constantly moving between shallow water to deeper waters and experiencing a rise in stress levels. This change – and acceleration – of migration has been linked to the arrival of businesses which allow tourists to hand-feed the whale sharks: for just $20, you can feed the sharks with a fistful of zooplankton, attracting them to your boat by luring them in with their staple food. Tourists have been carrying out these activities now for some 20 years and, over the course of two decades, the impact on whale sharks has been noticeable. Their familiarity with boats (or rather, their learned assumption that ‘boats = food’) have made the sharks vulnerable to encounters with propeller boats, and scars left by propellers have been observed in 47% of the whale shark populations in the area. That’s not even taking into account the number of sharks killed as a result of these dangerous boat encounters.
(A whale shark exhibits propeller scars. Credit to Steve de Need and Physalus/LAMAVE, dive-bohol.com)
So how can we continue to view whale sharks, safely, in their native habitats? Conservation organisations such as Reef-World and Green Fins have made their disdain of certain tourism activities known, ‘coming out against the tourism activities in Oslob (Cebu, Philippines), noting that the practice of feeding wildlife is unsustainable’. Similarly, adhering to certain rules such as tourism control and no-go zones could prevent an influx of visitors from creating irreversible damage to the environment and its inhabitants, leaving certain marine areas sacred and to be frequented by the animals themselves. Indeed, the beckoning of financial success can be blamed for the arrival of initial unsustainable practices – but by promising a more considered, environmentally-viable option for future tourists could allow businesses to make their money well into the future. All it takes is for them to embrace sustainability in the now, and an ever-conscious global audience will likely follow, their pockets lined with money which could offer support to marine conservation organisations and the tourism industry.
It is the financial side of marine conservation which mustn’t be ignored, too – while thousands of would-be tourists are keen to embrace sustainable practices, eager to learn about the magical inhabitants of our oceans, we should not disregard the support needed for environmentally-conscious initiatives. If we wish to protect our oceans while still remaining curious about what lies beneath, it’s important to provide the funding for those organisations. Choose your tourism experiences wisely, and ask yourself: ‘where does my money go? Are these organisations acting responsibly? Am I thinking more about myself or about the future of our ocean giants?’ Whether donating to research programmes or becoming involved as a volunteer, every minute and penny spent could help to provide a better future for whale sharks and their aquatic neighbours.
Of course, a marine conservation experience is not for everybody – whether suffering from a fear of the ocean or simply not fond of the idea of exploring out at sea, it does not go to say that you have no place in the protection of our ocean. There are countless ways in which whale sharks – amongst other marine species – are affected by our actions, but you can still offer your support to those fighting the good fight against pollution and unsafe practices. Just a few examples of how you can make a difference can be found below:
Donate to your preferred charity or research organisation from the comfort of your sofa
We touched on this point just above, but it’s an incredibly important one: your money (be that 50p to £50) will help to support the vital work which goes into whale shark protection. From helping to cover the costs of spreading awareness (through means of marketing, conferences, and reading material) to funding scientific research and environmental projects, your money can help keep organisations such as The Shark Trust afloat.
Choose your food consciously
You might not know it, but the choices you make in your local supermarket could seriously impact whale shark populations across the globe. Unsustainable fishing practices, for example, are to blame for the deaths of countless dolphins, turtles and whale sharks, to name but a few species. The poor management of fisheries and the bycatch of threatened marine creatures can all be traced back to consumer choice, so aim to support ethically-sound companies such as those on the top of Greenpeace’s own league table (the same list shows you which companies to avoid, too!). Remember: industry change is unlikely to happen without consumer pressure, so hit brands like John West in the pocket and help to protect our oceans!
Political pressure and petitions
It’s egregious to consider that, in today’s world, the cruel finning industry still manages to prevail. According to a 2006 study, the fins of 26-73 million sharks were traded worldwide – the data is old, yes, but the problem does still persist globally. Pressures have caused shark finning activities to drop in some parts of the world (Hong Kong, for example, saw the volume of imported shark fin drop by 50% between 2007 and 2017), but there is a distinct difference between the banning of trade and the total eradication of the practice. You can view a comprehensive list of the hotels, airlines and countries which have implemented at least partial bans on aspects of the industry by clicking here, but you may be surprised to find that even hotels based within the UK (the InterContinental Group, for example) continued to serve shark fin soup across their chain until just a couple of years ago. This, indeed, could still have been the case if it were not for PR pressures – so keep signing your name to petitions, take a stand at rallies, and make your voice heard to ensure this awful industry is stamped out for good across the globe.
Care for your local environment
This final point is a crucial one, but also one of the easiest to implement – simply take care of the world around you. Whether ensuring that you recycle correctly, use as little plastic as possible, or help aid beach clean-ups (in your local area or overseas!), every aspect of sustainable living can help to protect whale sharks and other marine species from an early demise. Even by avoiding cosmetics containing microbeads can help to preserve a future for whale sharks: due to their filter-feeding ways, whale sharks are unfortunately incredibly susceptible to consuming plastic, ultimately killing them from the inside. The contamination of our oceans (be that from plastic bottles, microbeads or abandoned fishing nets) have proven critical over the years, and while we cannot undo the damage already caused, we can certainly prevent the problem from getting worse.
Whether you're making a difference by making the changes suggested above, or simply working to spread awareness, your help could work towards a better future for whale sharks and all marine species. Be sure to share this article with your friends, as well as our infographic below!
The Great Projects are proud to support a number of reputable, exciting tourism companies, so if the idea of becoming a whale shark volunteer is something you'd be interested in exploring, be sure to head to our project pages to find out more!
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Come face to face with one of the world’s most misunderstood predators whilst aiding great white shark conservation. As a volunteer, not only will you get the incredible opportunity to dive with sharks, but you will also assist the team in raising awareness of the great white as you work alongside tourists and local school children to provide them with knowledge of the local environment and the importance of living in harmony with South Africa’s marine life.
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