This Marine Animal Can Grow Up To 40 Feet Long. Their Mouths Can Be Up To Five Feet Wide. And You Can Swim With It.
The whale shark is the biggest fish on the planet. These gentle giants roam the oceans around the world. They mostly live alone. However, large numbers of whale sharks often gather in areas to feed. Their diet consists of tiny plankton, fish eggs, krill and other micro-organisms that it filters through its gills as it swims with Its enormous mouth open and engulfs large quantities of its food.
Whale sharks are striking in their appearance not only because of their size but also for their unique pattern covering their body. Making then popular with divers and tourists who love to swim alongside them. But little is known about the species.
Tour operators now take tourist to swim with the whale sharks, providing an income for the local community, which is good in some aspects because the fish is worth more alive than dead, but bad when boats interrupt their feeding or the boat propellers injure them.
Listed by ICUN as endangered and decreasing their numbers have more than halved over the last 75 years, with legal and illegal fishing, entrapment in fishing gear, and collisions with boats responsible for the most deaths. Additionally, in some countries, whale sharks are highly valued on Demand for their meat, fins and oil remains.
La Paz, Mexico is one place in the world that juvenile whale shark return from September to April, there are over 400 whale sharks that come back and forth each year.
I travelled to La Paz, where I met with Manuel Gonzalez of Whale Shark Research Project (WSRP), which is a non-profit organisation helping the species.
Manuel explains WSRP started because he had a boat and needed to make an income, so he began to do tours allowing tourists to swim with the whale sharks. He met his now business partner Darren who moved to La Paz to work in whale sharks conservation. Through Darren, he learnt a lot about the species and says “I became passionate about them, and they're a wonderful species. We want to study them as much as possible, so we have solutions to problems. I also educate people about not throwing trash in the sea, we have seen society changing on protecting the whale shark for the better." Manuel expresses it's important to give back to the community, and he likes working with the younger generation and teaching them about conservation and even takes teenagers from the orphanage on tours to swim with the whale shark so they can appreciate them.
part of the conservation work that WSRP, does is to monitor the whale sharks in the area this is done by taking a photo of each fish who are individually identified using their unique pattern.
Manuel says, "if we see the whale shark again and it has a bad injury we know it happened here in the bay, we have evidence that it arrived in good shape. We study the injuries. Last year we counted 107 whale sharks in the bay, we counted 60 whale shark with injuries from boats, that means we humans are hurting the whale sharks." The evidence collected by WSRP, along with other conservationists in the area, is presented to the authorities, so they ensure speeding boats are held accountable".
"Last year they were no control over the boats, boats were speeding, and the whale sharks were feeding on the surface, and the propeller from a boat would hit them," says, Manuel.
Boats now have GPS if they speed the authorities will know. The first time they are caught speeding they are given a warning, the second time they take away your permit, without a permit your not allowed to have a boat in the area you get a big fined and even take your boat away.
The whale shark is migration species they like warm waters, the information collected by WSRP is shared with other scientists and conservation groups “the same whale shark we seen here, have been seen in Japan.” says Manuel.
Students from around the world can join WSRP and work alongside a whale shark researcher, help with data collection monitor the fish, and increase their knowledge of marine conservation.
To volunteer or take a tour with Whale Shark Research Project
My Swim with the whale sharks
Manuel only takes small groups to swim with the whale sharks, even though his boat can take many more people.
I went in February, and we set off at 9.am. I was provided with a wetsuit, goggles and snorkel. Because it was not hot, I was expecting to jump it the water and feel the shock of the cold water, but it was warm. Manuel Instructed me not to touch the whale shark, out of his love and respect for the animals. I am not a good swimmer and have zero coordination, but Manuel was patient and accompanied me on my swim. I got within inches of these giants as they swam alongside us and underneath us, almost touching me as it passed, it was quite surreal, definitely a bucket list moment.
We saw many whale sharks and not a lot of tourists.