A campaign launched this week is urging tourists to choose tour operators who have signed up to a new whale shark code of conduct when visiting the Maldives’ magnificent marine wildlife.
Launched by Maldives Whale Shark Research Programme (MWRSP) and marine conservation charities Maldives Resilient Reefs (MRR) and Blue Marine Foundation, #BeGentleToGiants 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 South Ari Marine Protected Area (MPA), located in the Maldives, plays host to a unique and naturally occurring year-round aggregation, and to date, no whale shark found here has been recorded anywhere else in the world. Sadly, they are declining in abundance, reduced in numbers by at least 16 per cent since 2014.
Some 45 per cent of whale sharks in the South Ari MPA waters now show signs of major injury – many of which can be attributed to boat strikes. These happen when boats speed within the reef where whale sharks cruise in the warm, shallow waters to regain energy after long periods in deeper, colder water. The code of conduct requires operators to cruise below ten knots within the reef to reduce the risk of these collisions.
The code also recommends limiting disturbance to these filter-feeding sharks when swimming with them as encounters that are too crowded or noisy can alter their natural behaviour. The code of conduct promotes just one boat per shark, encouraging those in the water to give the whale sharks space and keep splashes and sudden movements to a minimum.
Shaha Hashim of Blue Marine and MRR said: “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. 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: “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: “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.”
Tour operators who have signed up to the whale shark code of conduct can be found by visiting www.begentletogiants.org/maldives