A group of environmental NGOs launched a campaign this week to promote a new code of conduct designed to protect whale sharks during excursions.
The #BeGentleToGiants campaign urges tourists to choose tour operators that have signed up to the whale shark code of conduct, which requires boats to cruise below ten knots within the reef to reduce the risk of collisions.
A 16% decline in the number of whale sharks at the South Ari Marine Protected Area has been recorded since 2014 and 45% now show signs of major injury, many of which were caused by boats speeding in shallow reefs to which the creatures emerge from deeper regions to regain strength.
A collaboration between the Maldives Whale Shark Research Programme (MWRSP) and marine conservation charities Maldives Resilient Reefs (MRR) and Blue Marine Foundation, the initiative “seeks to encourage both tour operators and marine wildlife visitors alike to protect this iconic gentle giant of the ocean from negative effects of marine encounters.”
The code of conduct would also limit the number of boats to one per shark and recommends limiting disturbance swimming with them as “encounters that are too crowded or noisy can alter their natural behaviour.” Swimmers would also be advised to give the whale sharks space and avoid splashes and sudden movements.
“The current whale shark tourism in the South Ari MPA is not only unsustainable, but it is also dangerous for the whale sharks and the tourists,” said Shaha Hashim of Blue Marine and MRR.
“It is crucial that all tour operators who use the area sign up to the #BeGentleToGiants code of conduct and abide by it to safeguard the whale sharks and their businesses while providing an enjoyable experience to their guests. In the past, we have seen how the Maldives tourism industry can be a driver of conservation and it’s time for them to step up again.”
Maldives Whale Shark Research Programme said: “South Ari atoll MPA is desperately in need of better protection, and we can all agree that full-on enforcement of the regulations set in place can only be achieved through a proper management plan. That said, each and every one of us using the area for its various ecosystem services have a role in ensuring our individual impact on the area is minimal, and that our actions do not lead to the degradation of the population and habitat of these gentle giants.”
Ibrahim Usman, President of Dhigurah Council said: “Dhigurah has always been a partner to protect South Ari Atoll MPA since the work began in Maldives by the Maldives whale shark research programme. Whale shark snorkelling is the most important marketing tool for the nearby resorts and our island guest houses as well. Therefore, protecting whale sharks is very vital to promoting tourism in South Ari and the Maldives. To protect whale sharks, we must give our commitment and support in all activities and practices that promote policies and regulations in the South Ari MPA. Dhigurah Council and the whole community will definitely support the campaign.”
John Rogers, General Manager of LUX* South Ari Atoll which is championing the code of conduct, said: “We actively promote and follow the code of conduct for swimming with the whale sharks during each excursion; educating our guests on the importance of respecting these amazing creatures by providing awareness sessions prior to entering the water. It would be great to see whale shark tourism in the Maldives carefully regulated to avoid losing sight of whale sharks completely. Proper regulations will not only protect the sharks but it will continue to attract the tourists to visit South Ari Atoll and benefit the tourist industry in the long term.”
Alexandra Jamaica at Scubaspa said: “With increasing number of tourist vessels entering SAMPA every day, we observe whale sharks being harassed by visitors and struck by speeding boats on a daily basis. Guides and operators need to take responsibility for the protection of our whale sharks, starting with extensive safety briefings and enforcing the simple Code of Conduct among their guests. Hopefully the Gentle to Giants campaign will reach many local and tourist ocean enthusiasts and inspire them to make a difference.”
Amir Schmidt at MV KEANA said: “It seems like whale sharks are home to Maldives before there were even humans. Over time human impact has reached alarming levels on the atoll ecosystems. Nobody actually wants to hunt down a whale shark together with a dozen different boats but it’s happening. Nobody wants to encircle a whale shark together with dozens of people not giving the fish its space but it’s happening. Nobody wants to ride over a whale shark with the boat but it’s happening. All stakeholders need to make a choice. Time is running out.”
Andre Horn at dive centre from resorts, EURODIVERS, said: “Whale sharks have roamed the oceans for over 70 million years and are an indicator of a healthy ocean itself. As whale sharks feed on ocean plankton, their role in regulating the ocean is as important as other species of sharks. These gentle giants are on the list of endangered species. Euro-Divers believes in the code of conduct as we are fortunate enough to visit the South Ari Marine Protected Area frequently with our guests and use these events to educate the various guests about the importance of whale sharks not only here in the Maldives but around the world.”