Caring Together for Whale Sharks

Caring Together for Whale Sharks

Caring Together for Whale Sharks in Mexico

shark-boat-resizedUntil about 20 years ago scientists thought that whale sharks were solitary open ocean behemoths but, increasingly, we have learned of places around the world – about a dozen so far – where whale sharks gather reliably in substantial numbers, and quite close to the coast. This has created blossoming ecotourism markets, ones based on creating opportunities for people to experience these spectacular and charismatic animals; but these experiences do not come without their downsides, and this tremendous opportunity to foster connection with iconic marine species has created some urgent problems as well.

In the Mexican state of Quintana Roo, the largest of all known whale shark gatherings has become the focus of intense ecotourism pressure. Boat operators based in Isla Mujeres, and increasingly in Cancun, have radically expanded their fleets to provide trips for tourists to experience the marvel of the whale shark gathering, and intense competition has driven prices down to just $120-$170 dollars per person for this once-in-a-lifetime bucket-list experience. Tourists, primarily from the US and Europe, are unknowingly providing an economic incentive for unsustainable practices that threaten both the industry and the very whale sharks themselves.

The concerns that have grown alongside this lucrative new market have reached a precarious point. The number of boats licensed to visit the whales has grown from just a handful at Holbox, to over 250 in 2013 and 280 in 2014. This means that on many days, the boats outnumber the whale sharks, creating a literal traffic jam on the water and a risky cocktail of propellers, large animals and inexperienced snorkelers in an open water environment some 20 miles from shore. Indeed, a significant portion of the sharks now show signs of recent or past boat strike injury, the majority of which almost certainly result from unintended contact with ecotour boats.

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