It’s been a while since I wrote on this blog, mostly because I’ve spent the last year on sabbatical visiting whale shark aggregations around the world – Djibouti, Philippines, Mexico….  It’s a rough job but someone has to do it!  Seeing so many whale shark aggregations in a short time really lets you compare the animals, habitats and tourist operations.  The report below concerns a new whale shark tourism operation in Cebu, Philippines that I visited in April.  It was a disturbing situation, and as you will see, had an even more disturbing follow-up.

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Whale shark ecotourism operations exist in many countries that host seasonal aggregations of these animals. The docile nature and surface feeding behavior of whale sharks at coastal aggregations provides an ideal opportunity for tourists to observe and snorkel alongside these huge sharks. In many cases, ecotourism has replaced fishing of whale sharks, with former shark fishermen converting their boats and crews to staff the ecotourism operation. This can be a win-win situation for both the sharks and the local community – fishermen earn an equivalent or often greater income, while whale sharks receive protection as a renewable resource. Unregulated, however, ecotourism has the potential to endanger the very animals it should protect.

As a set of guidelines to protect whale sharks, nearly all ecotourism operations have adopted a code of conduct first established by the Australian government for ecotourism at Ningaloo Reef. This code stipulates that 1) only one tourist boat should interact with a shark at one time, 2) no more than six snorkelers should be in the water with a shark at any time, 3) snorkelers must maintain a distance of three meters from the shark, and 4) snorkelers may not touch the shark or block its movement. When followed, as they are to varying degrees in different countries, these regulations ensure a safe and enjoyable whale shark experience for tourists with minimal impact on the sharks.

Recently, the town of Oslob, Cebu, Philippines, has started a different sort of whale shark ecotourism. For a number of years, fisherman in Oslob have been hand feeding a group of whale sharks, dropping small amounts of shrimp (locally called uyap) into the water as the sharks follow behind the boats. They began this practice to lead the sharks, which they considered a nuisance, away from their fishing areas. Last year tourists began coming to see the “friendly” whale sharks up close, and the fishermen realized they could also use uyap to lead sharks towards the shore, and charge tourists to see the animals. When this story hit the international news in November of 2011, the tourism industry in Oslob exploded. Large numbers of tourists began arriving in Oslob, and more fishermen began offering whale shark interactions.  Within weeks the crowds arriving in Oslob grew from the dozens into the hundreds, and the situation quickly became chaotic with no infrastructure yet in place. There were reports of sharks being injured by boats, and being touched and ridden by tourists.

The conservation group Physalus, run by Italian researcher Ale slot machines online Ponzo, has been studying whale sharks in the Philippines for the past two years, and they were early observers of the Oslob situation. Seeing the need for regulation of Oslob whale shark tourism, Physalus took on the role of advisor and monitor for this evolving operation. Since December of 2011, they have been monitoring the interactions between tourists and sharks, and working with the local government to provide structure and oversight to ensure tourist and shark safety.  Working in the Philippines with Physalus this past April, I had a chance to visit Oslob and survey the situation there.

Arriving in Oslob late in the evening after a 3-hour bus ride from Cebu City, we found many small resorts in various stages of construction, evidence of the rapidly growing tourism.  The following morning was Good Friday, the beginning of the Easter holiday weekend. Tourists began arriving at the interaction site by 8am, and the numbers grew quickly; we would later learn that crowds that day reached 1500 people. Even before reaching the water, the impact of this tourist influx is clear. The small road along the shore is crowded with tourist transport ranging from the sidecar-equipped motorcycles called tricycles, to huge commercial tour buses. Along the beach, the large number of tourists has spawned a host of cottage industries, with impromptu restaurants and souvenir stands, operators hawking other local tours, and always the hammering of new construction.

At the time I visited Oslob, the first set of tourism regulations had just been put into place. There are roughly 100 boats participating in the whale shark interactions, small outrigger boats called bancas that each carry two crew and 4-6 tourists.   It had been decided that only 25 boats would be on the water at any time, and they were to form two lines 5 meters apart. A “feeder” boat would then lead the whale shark between the boat lines so the tourists could observe the animals. While many people were happy to see the sharks from the boat, others got into the water, often hanging onto the outriggers of the boat. There are also several dive operations that work the aggregation site, and while the dive boats must stay outside the interaction area, as many as 20 divers may enter and move under the sharks. Physalus observers who had been in Oslob for several months said these new regulations created a more organized operation, as previously the tourist boats simply massed around the feeder boat and shark.

Watching both from the shore and the water, however, it was difficult to imagine how the scene could have been any more chaotic. The boats frequently moved off the lines, giving the sharks far less than 5m of space.  When the water is rough, as it was that weekend, the massed boats begin heaving in the swell, with their outriggers hitting each other as well as swimmers and sharks. We saw sharks run over by boat outriggers, and swimmers in the water nearly hit by adjacent boats. One small boat capsized when too many snorkelers climbed onto one outrigger, and all passengers were dumped into the water. Beneath the surface, divers must try to avoid the boats, the snorkelers and the whale sharks. As the water is only 25-30 feet deep, there is little room for the divers to move an adequate distance away. Inevitably there is much touching, accidently and intentionally, and it is quite difficult to police actions beneath the surface.

There are concerns for the whale sharks that come to this area. Many sharks show injuries to their mouths and heads, consistent with damage from the boats. These sharks have also come to associate humans and boats with food; this familiarity could have a devastating effect if these animals move into waters where hunting of whale sharks persists. There is also the concern that while the Oslob sharks are getting an easy meal, it is a very limited diet in both quantity and variety. Studies of whale sharks in other aggregations have shown that a small 4 meter whale shark typically eats 11 kilograms of food per day. The sharks in Oslob, usually several animals per day, share uyap totaling only a few kilograms.  The animals may spend as long as 8 hours per day at the site, leaving them little opportunity to feed elsewhere.

As I was returning to Manila, Dr. Ponzo was meeting with the Oslob mayor and city council to offer the results of Physalus’ observation of these interactions, and to recommend guidelines for ongoing whale shark tourism.  The primary changes suggested include limiting the number of boats that can be in the water at one time, and the length of time they can spend there, and enforcing the existing regulations on boat and swimmer distance from the shark. Though the situation in Oslob appears to be stabilizing and hopefully maturing, neighboring towns have recently announced that they would also be feeding whale sharks for tourists. While whale sharks may be largely safe from hunting in Philippine waters, Filipinos may end up loving their whale sharks to death.