Swimming with whale sharks? Don’t copy these snorkelers!

Rappler.com
Swimming with whale sharks? Don’t copy these snorkelers!
A viral video reminds us why it's wrong to touch whale sharks and how we can be better stewards of these gentle giants

MANILA, Philippines – A viral video of snorkelers crowding around and touching a whale shark has sparked online anger and calls for respect for the gentle sea creatures.  

The video shows a group of snorkelers excitedly touching a whale shark and even swimming all around it. The snorkelers were swimming in Redang Island, a popular dive site in Malaysia. The video was shared on Facebook by ScubaHive – a website that promotes scuba diving in Malaysia – to call out the tour operators for not respecting the marine environment. 

“[To the] Tour/snorkeling operator(s), SHAME ON YOU! What happened to respecting the ocean? All that was required was a little education, awareness, common sense, and some simple guidelines to follow,” wrote ScubaHive on it’s post. 

 

how NOT to interact with whale sharks!

Usually, we’d be excited to report whale shark sightings (this was recently captured in the waters of Redang Island near one of its wrecks), but this video just brings Monday blues to a whole new level. Putting blame to the snorkelers is perhaps moot as they may not know better… but tour/snorkeling operator(s), SHAME ON YOU! What happened to respecting the ocean? All that was required was a little education, awareness, common sense, and some simple guidelines to follow. How would you feel if a group of strangers enters your home and starts touching you without your consent? Wouldn’t you feel violated? Marine life isn’t any different. Remember we are in their home, and we are merely guests, so have some decency and show some respect please. And if you are not aware of any “whale shark guidelines”, a simple Google search would suffice. And if you’re not familiar with search engines, here’s a sample, https://www.dpaw.wa.gov.au/management/marine/marine-wildlife/whale-sharks?showall=&start=2 Read it. Understand it. Embrace it. You’re welcome.

Posted by ScubaHive on Monday, April 10, 2017

Phillip Yong, the head of ScubaHive, told Rappler that the tour operator should educate their guests on how to interact properly with whale sharks.

“If you’re in the industry, you know of the unwritten rules, like ‘do not touch, do not litter, do not harass marine life. How difficult is it to impart some of this knowledge to the guests?” said Yong. 

Whale sharks, which are in-fact sharks and not whales, are slow swimmers and pose no threat to humans, which makes them a popular tourist attraction when they swim close to the water surface. But, marine conservation experts say humans should avoid touching or swimming closely to the fish as it can cause undue stress for the fish. What’s worse, humans could transmit diseases to the whale sharks that could cause an infection.  

“Wouldn’t you be stressed if this happens to you?” asked Yong.  

Endangered 

The International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN), identified whale sharks and winghead sharks as an endangered species with global whale shark population declining more than 50% over the last 75 years. (READ: Miss Universe criticized for whale shark swim)

Yong hopes the video will remind tour operators of the importance of educating tourists about how to properly interact with marine life, and educate the public about whale sharks. 

“The Philippines is doing a commendable job with the whale shark encounter code of conduct, that enforces minimum distances between sharks, boats and swimmers,” added Yong.  

In the two popular whale shark watching sites in the country: Oslob in Cebu and Donsol in Sorsogon, the community, tourists, and tour operators follow strict guidelines that were put in place to prevent harm to the whale shark population. But questions still remain on how much human interaction with whale sharks is permissible, and when should a clear line be drawn. (READ: Whale sharks back in Donsol)

STAY BACK. A group of snorkelers keep their distance from a whale shark. Photo courtesy of Arvydas Kniuksta/123rf

Hands off

If you’re planning on going for a swim with these magnificent fish, here are some ways you can make the most out of your experience without harming the gentle giants:

  1. Educate yourself. Swimming with whale sharks is a fun and rewarding experience, even more when you understand more about them and their habitat before you take the plunge.
  2. Follow the rules! Attend the local briefing at your snorkeling destination to learn about the rules when interacting with the whale sharks. Usually they include staying away from the sharks by 4-6 meters, limiting the number of people or boats near the sharks, and not feeding them.
  3. Respect the whale sharks. Whale Sharks are an endangered species and deserve our respect and care. This means taking care of their home by not throwing trash into the seas and on the streets, where it can end up in the sea. 

According to Yong, “we must not forget that we have to respect Mother Nature, and not alter the biological cycle of these magnificent creatures.” – Rappler.com

Stock photo credits: 123RF

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