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In 2016, the International Union for Conservation of Nature moved the whale shark from 'vulnerable' status to 'endangered' after concluding that its population had fallen by about 50 per cent in the past 75 years.

Simon J. Pierce

The Maldives, a sandy necklace of islands that stretches 750 kilometres across the Indian Ocean, just north of the Equator, is a paradise for snorkellers and scuba divers. The star attractions are manta rays, sundry sharks and whale sharks, fish so big they are sometimes mistaken for whales and so rare that spotting one is a once-in-a-lifetime event for most submerged tourists.

On a holiday in April, aboard a 50-metre yacht with 30 guests, we saw several manta rays, graceful creatures three or four metres across, that cruised near us as if slow-moving albatrosses. We saw so many sharks – mostly whitetips, blacktips and nurse sharks – that we got bored with them. We could have seen a whale shark, but we – that is, I and some of my incensed friends – refused to jump overboard when one was found.

We felt that way because the whale-shark-watching event that would have been the highlight of our week-long trip had quickly turned into a mob scene, at the expense of the poor beast in the water. All suited-up and ready to dive, we just couldn’t bring ourselves to be part of it.

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In a wide, deep channel in South Ari Atoll, about 70 km south of the Maldives capital, Malé, several dozen boats, ranging from five-metre skiffs to proper yachts, were dashing back and forth looking for whale sharks. Our dive boat was among them.

Whale sharks – Rhincodon typus – often cruise just below the surface, warming their bodies before making deep dives, making them easy to spot. They are the biggest fish and can reach a length of 12 metres and weigh more than 20 tonnes – the size of a bus. While they have many tiny teeth, they cannot harm a diver unless he or she swims into the arc of their enormously powerful tail fins. These placid beasts, known as filter feeders, mostly consume plankton.

Whale sharks: The gentle giant

of the sea is disappearing fast

The world’s biggest fish, the size of a bus, is

endangered because of overfishing, accidental

capture in nets and pollution. Now, mass tour

ism is part of the problem.

Whale shark range

Whale sharks are found in all tropical

seas except the Mediterranean

Atlantic

Ocean

Pacific

Ocean

Pacific

Ocean

Spawning area

Population distribution

Atlantic

Indo-Pacific

Indian

Ocean

0

100

25%

KM

75%

Malé

Ari Atoll

Maldives

Nilandu

Atoll

63% decline over

the last 75 years

Whale sharks

protected in 1995

Suvadiva

Atoll

Upper caudal fin

First

dorsal fin

Identifiable by

their spot patterns

Gill slits (5-7)

Can dive to at least 1,928 metres

Mouth

Eye

Paired

pectoral

fins

Diver

Whale shark

Rhincodon typus

1.8m

Avg. size range: 5 to 10m

Reproduction: Females give

birth to live young from eggs

Diet: Filter feeders who

mainly eat plankton but

also consume small fish,

shrimp, algae and fish eggs

Lifespan: 100 years +

Conservation status:

IUCN Red List (endangered)

Threats

Key protected habitats

Fisheries: Either through direct fishing for shark products or through bycatch, getting trapped in nets

Australia (Ningaloo Reef)

Belize (Gladden Spit)

Costa Rica (Cocos Island)

Ecuador (Galapagos Isl.)

Mexico (Yum-Balam Biosphere Reserve)

Pollution: Chemicals, trash

Boat strikes

Panama (Coiba Island)

Tourism (indirectly)

U.K. (St. Helena Island)

JOHN SOPINSKI/THE GLOBE AND MAIL, SOURCEs: International Union for Conservation of Nature and Natural Resources (IUCN); sharklife conservation group; lamave.org; Live science; national geographic; graphic news; shutterstock (shark photo)

Whale sharks: The gentle giant

of the sea is disappearing fast

The world’s biggest fish, the size of a bus, is endangered

because of overfishing, accidental capture in nets and

pollution. Now, mass tourism is part of the problem.

Whale shark range

Whale sharks are found in all tropical seas

except the Mediterranean

Atlantic

Ocean

Pacific

Ocean

Pacific

Ocean

Spawning area

Population distribution

Atlantic

Indo-Pacific

Indian

Ocean

0

100

25%

KM

75%

Malé

Ari Atoll

Maldives

Nilandu

Atoll

63% decline over

the last 75 years

Whale sharks protected in 1995

Suvadiva

Atoll

Upper caudal fin

First

dorsal fin

Identifiable by

their spot patterns

Gill slits (5-7)

Can dive to at least 1,928 metres

Mouth

Eye

Paired

pectoral

fins

Diver

Whale shark

Rhincodon typus

1.8m

Avg. size range: 5 to 10m

Reproduction: Females give

birth to live young from eggs

Diet: Filter feeders who

mainly eat plankton but

also consume small fish,

shrimp, algae and fish eggs

Lifespan: 100 years +

Conservation status:

IUCN Red List (endangered)

Threats

Key protected habitats

Fisheries: Either through direct fishing for shark products or through bycatch, getting trapped in nets

Australia (Ningaloo Reef)

Belize (Gladden Spit)

Costa Rica (Cocos Island)

Ecuador (Galapagos Isl.)

Mexico (Yum-Balam Biosphere Reserve)

Pollution: Chemicals, trash

Boat strikes

Panama (Coiba Island)

Tourism (indirectly)

U.K. (St. Helena Island)

JOHN SOPINSKI/THE GLOBE AND MAIL, SOURCEs: International Union for Conservation of Nature and Natural Resources (IUCN); sharklife conservation group; lamave.org; Live science; national geographic; graphic news; shutterstock (shark photo)

Whale sharks: The gentle giant of the sea is disappearing fast

The world’s biggest fish, the size of a bus, is endangered because of overfishing,

accidental capture in nets and pollution. Now, mass tourism is part of the problem.

Whale shark range

Whale sharks are found in all tropical seas except the Mediterranean

Atlantic

Ocean

Pacific

Ocean

Pacific

Ocean

Spawning area

Population distribution

Atlantic

Indo-Pacific

Indian

Ocean

0

100

25%

KM

75%

Ari Atoll

Malé

Nilandu

Atoll

Maldives

63% decline over

the last 75 years

Whale sharks were protected in 1995

Upper caudal fin

Kolumadulu Atoll

Suvadiva

Atoll

Can dive to at least 1,928 metres

First

dorsal fin

Identifiable by

their spot patterns

Whale shark

Rhincodon typus

Gill

slits

(5-7)

Avg. size range: 5 to 10m

Diet: Filter feeders who

mainly eat plankton but

also consume small fish,

shrimp, algae and fish eggs

Paired

pectoral

fins

Transverse

mouth

Eye

Reproduction: Females give

birth to live young from eggs

Diver

Lifespan: 100 years +

Conservation status:

IUCN Red List (endangered)

1.8m

Threats

Key protected habitats

Fisheries: Either through direct fishing for shark products or through bycatch, getting trapped in nets

Australia (Ningaloo Reef)

Belize (Gladden Spit)

Costa Rica (Cocos Island)

Ecuador (Galapagos Islands)

Mexico (Yum-Balam Biosphere Reserve)

Pollution: Chemicals, trash

Boat strikes

Panama (Coiba Island)

Tourism (indirectly)

U.K. (St. Helena Island)

JOHN SOPINSKI/THE GLOBE AND MAIL, SOURCEs: International Union for

Conservation of Nature and Natural Resources (IUCN); sharklife

conservation group; lamave.org; Live science; national geographic;

graphic news; shutterstock (shark photo)

When one of the boat captains spotted a whale shark, the entire armada patrolling the channel converged at once, propellers thrashing. Our captain wisely decided to stay on the periphery of the traffic jam. An instant later, 100 divers and snorkellers, maybe more, flung themselves into the water to chase the animal. One diver we talked to said he spotted another diver using his camera, mounted on an extension stick, to poke the fish’s head. The whale shark, evidently scared by the mob, dove away.

Mohamed (Mox) Ismael, our highly experienced dive master – he does 800 dives a year – was one member of our group who refused to join the watery crowd scene. Perched on the upper deck of our boat, he just shook his head in despair. He called it “irresponsible tourism,” explaining that the whale-shark-tour captains, having taken big money from tourists, feel they can’t hold their clients back when a whale shark is spotted. “The whale shark dives are becoming more and more money-oriented,” he said. “We are seeing evasive behaviour from the sharks. They’re afraid.”

He said many of the sharks have spiral wounds on their backs, evidence that they have been hit by propellers. Indeed, the Maldives Whale Shark Research Programme (MWSRP), a research and conservation charity, says that 29 per cent of the 368 whale sharks recorded in its database have suffered “major injury.” While they are sturdy creatures, it is not known how many, if any, have died from their injuries.

What is known is that whale sharks are in rapid decline. In 2016, the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN) moved the animal from “vulnerable” status to “endangered” – meaning it faces an extremely high risk of extinction – after concluding that its population had fallen by about 50 per cent in the past 75 years. On the global database compiled by whaleshark.org, there are only 9,095 identified living whale sharks, about two thirds of them in Indo-Pacific waters (Maldives, Philippines, Thailand, Western Australia, among other spots), the rest in the Atlantic.

Simon Pierce, biologist at the Marine Megafauna Foundation, a science and conservation group that focuses on large, threatened ocean creatures such as mantas and sea turtles, says most of the whale sharks’ decline has come since the mid-1980s. “The main threat to whale sharks is overfishing,” he said. “There have been several large commercial fisheries for whale sharks and they are still caught routinely in China. Elsewhere, whale sharks are caught accidentally in gill-net and tuna purse-seine fisheries.”

Story continues below advertisement

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.

Simon J. Pierce

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.”

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