How to Swim with Whale Sharks Responsibly
Wildlife tourism can help save a species and protect the environment – or it can be a threat to both. There are almost no species where this conundrum is more evident than with the whale shark, currently classified as Endangered by the IUCN.
Whale Shark Tourism: A Double-Edged Sword
On the one hand, whale shark tourism has helped to turn many hunting and fishing communities into whale shark conservation advocates. Moreover, the information gathered by people like you and me while on our whale shark holidays has become invaluable to scientists in their quest to understand and save this magnificent creature.
However, unintentional harassment by well-meaning eco-tourists is also a threat as it can interrupt feeding and impact their movement patterns. Add to this the boat strikes and propeller cuts that have severely injured and can kill whale sharks, and tourism’s double-edged sword is visible.
Guidelines Can Be Contradictory, Which Should I follow?
Many countries have developed guidelines and even laws for whale shark tourism. Although all aim to protect this incredible fish, some maybe seem contradictory to others. Be sure to understand the guidelines of the country or area you are visiting as well as any additional specific rules of your chosen tour guide. And always use common sense.
This video from the Maldives Whale Shark Research Programme is a quick and easy overview of the right way to swim with whale sharks. Then read below for more detail.
l. Swimming with Whale Sharks Best Practices
It is time to swim with whale sharks! When you are in the water, you are responsible for your actions. Below is how to keep your impact to a minimum. Watch the video above for an overview from The Maldives Whale Shark Research program, then read below.
What Equipment do I Need to Swim with Whale Sharks?
Wear a life vest:
You will be in open ocean, wear a life vest especially if you are not a very strong swimmer. A dive suit is also a safe idea.
Snorkel: Best Way!
Many areas do not allow scuba diving. If you are in an area that does allow it, keep the bubbles well away from the head or underneath the animal and follow all distance and other rules.
Know Your Gear:
Always a Best Practice! Understand how to use it and be comfortable using your gear.
How to Be in the Water with Whale Sharks
Where to enter the water:
People should be “dropped off” off way ahead, not close to, the on-coming shark (Let the shark approach you!)
Enter the water gently:
slide in, no jumping or diving.
Keep your head in the water:
With your head in the water, look forward up to the water line for whale sharks, not downward to the ocean floor.
Swim toward the Whale Shark:
as gently as possible, minimize splashing.
Meeting a Whale Shark!
Swim along the side of the whale shark,
not at the head, tail, above or below.
Position yourself at the side and behind the whale shark’s pectoral fin, NOT in front of it or at its head or tail.
Do not restrict the movement or behavior of the whale shark.
DO NOT touch or attempt to ride on the whale shark
DO NOT feed the whale sharks or other wildlife.
Keep your distance. Remain at least 4-m from the tail, 3-4 meters from the head.
Do not “duck dive” near or in front of the whale shark.
Be considerate of others: allow room for others in the water with you to also experience the whale shark.
Watch your Instructor/guide for instructions while in the water.
Be Aware of Whale Shark Distress
Whale sharks are passive and reasonably patient, and for the most part harmless, but they will become stressed by tourists. When it does, the whale shark may decide it has had enough and unexpectedly move on or dive quickly. Sad for the viewers and also dangerous if one gets accidentally bumped by a 20-ton fish. They can also inflict unintended damage just by flicking their enormous tail. Watch out for signs of distress.
NEVER try to stop or alter its direction.
Banking! When a whale shark begins to bank it is signaling its discomfort. Immediately stop whatever you are doing and create more distance between you and the whale shark.
Eye Rolling: If a shark rolls its eyes back it means it is uncomfortable. Move away.
It’s My Holiday. Can I Take Pictures with Whale Sharks Underwater ?
Yes! Take pictures but remember to do it safely for you and the whale shark. Keep within the guidelines above and:
No Flash when photographing whale sharks. It is startling to the shark.
Taking a Selfie? Everyone wants their picture with a whale shark! Including me! But, selfies are no excuse for irresponsible or dangerous behavior, see the guidelines above. Best idea? Agree in advance to have another swimmer take your photo – and you take theirs.
Watch out for and be considerate of fellow swimmers.
Consider taking a picture that will help Whale Shark research & conservation. (See below)
Combine Fun with Science to Help Whale Sharks.
Use your holiday fun and photography to add to the world’s scientific knowledge of whale sharks. When you see a whale shark note:
Location (GPS if possible)
Shark size (estimate)
Take Identifying photographs. (See the image)
Send your photo with your e-mail to Wildbook.
Take a look at the image below to understand exactly where to photograph that Whale Shark so the spots can be used for identification and tracking.
ll. How To Book the Best Whale Shark Experience
Before you book a tour, ask about the responsible practices the experience provider follows. Below is an aggregate of guidelines from Ecocean, the World Wildlife Foundation, The Marine Megafauna Foundation and other experts in the field for keeping both you and the whale sharks safe.
License or Certification: Does the operator need them? Does it have them? Different destinations have different laws, know before you go.
Ask about the Operator's Whale Shark Policy
Company Guidelines: Ask to see, or look online for the company’s whale shark experience guidelines.
Read Trip Advisor reports to learn about the experiences of past tourists. Were those experiences following responsible and safe practices?
Does the Operator Follow Accepted Whale Shark Guidelines ?
No Feeding, no Corralling:
Make sure whale sharks are not being lured into or kept at an area by being fed or by other means. Wildlife is wild, keep it that way.
Maximum speed 8-knots is recommended in areas with
Speeding is hazardous to the sharks and swimmers already in the water.
Boats should stay 23-30m away from the shark unless stopped - and the shark has come to the boat.
Limit Boats in the Whale Shark area.
Too many boats around the whale shark(s) cause it stress.
Optimum Distance from Whale Shark:
Boats interacting with a shark should be kept minimum 30-m away from whale sharks at all times. When whale sharks approach the boat, keep the boat still, motor off.
Swimmers, snorkelers or divers should be dropped off at least 20m ahead of the shark.
Boats should never chase the whale sharks.
An operator staff member should be present in the water with guests at all times.
Maximum time of interaction: 90 minutes. Most operators keep it safe with shorter than max in-water times.
3. Keep the Water Clean and Safe for Everyone
Finally, a few common-sense rules for keeping the oceans clean and safe for all life, including our own.
Never throw trash in the water
Wear biodegradable sunblock
Never touch coral. Be careful not to accidentally bump fragile coral.
Never remove anything (other than trash) from the water.
Simon J. Pierce, PhD : Co-founder and Principal Scientist , Marine Megafauna Foundation (MMF),
Science advisor for Wildbook for Whale Sharks
Vice Co-Chair (Sub-Equatorial Africa) | IUCN Shark Specialist Group Follow @MarineMegafauna
Follow @Simonpierce See more of Dr. Pierce's marine photography here
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