Whale sharks are as mysterious as they are breathtaking. Being in awe of them, I am not surprised that many prefer seeing them in their natural habitat. However, putting their lives in danger simply because of our desire to get close to them is no justification. As animal welfare becomes increasingly considered in tourism, we should make sure that our environment and the living beings that live among us are protected and properly cared for.

Danger alert!

According to the IUCN Red List, whale sharks are already endangered, and their population continues to decrease. Combining the data from both the Indo-Pacific and Atlantic region, it is likely that the global whale shark population has declined by more than 50% over the past 75 years. This is an alarming rate since a whale shark can live up to 150 years.

What have we done?

Nowadays, more people are aware that a great number of species in the animal kingdom is under the threat of extinction. A 2014 article published by Christine Dell’Amore on National Geographic talks about how humans are the reason why species extinction is happening 1,000 times faster. Despite conservation attempts, many species are still at risk of population decline because of human activity, such as intensive poaching and habitat destruction, among others.

The article also mentioned a statement made by postdoctoral research scientist Jenny McGuire, in which she said, “In general, scientists are in agreement that we’re at a period of heightened extinction risk and rates, and that’s been occurring nearly since humans have come onto the landscape.”

Earlier this year in January, blogger Beth wrote about ethical travel in her website Enjoy the Journey. She talked about the whale shark crisis in Oslob and how the unethical practices being done there are affecting the whale sharks. In general, feeding the whale sharks and allowing tourists direct contact disrupt their migration pattern and injures them as they try to get near the feeder boats, which leaves them with scars.

Will it hurt to be late?

For whale sharks, migration is part of their survival. A 2013 article for National Geographic written by Brian Handwerk details its importance in their diet and reproduction. During migration, whale sharks visit certain eating hotspots teeming with wildlife that complete their balanced diet. The feeding that happens in Oslob prevents them from doing so: They are fed only shrimps that don’t give them the necessary nutrients their normal diet does.

Besides their feeding, whale sharks also migrate to give birth to their offspring. Where they give birth is still unknown, but the nearest possible location is in the Galapagos Marine Reserve where several pregnant whale sharks were sighted.

According to the Galapagos Conservation Trust, preliminary findings from the Galapagos Whale Shark Project suggest that as high as 98 percent of individuals that pass through the marine reserve are female, the vast majority of which are not only mature but also appear pregnant. This is as far as we know and there is no exact location known about their pupping grounds. Young whale sharks are also almost never seen, and perhaps this may be for the best, although conservationists want to preserve and protect the area.

If a whale shark’s migration is disrupted, their very existence is threatened.

Oslob, the dark side

Don’t Forget to Move, another website that promotes responsible travel and tourism, has spoken out against the whale shark sightseeing in Oslob. Julian Hatfield wrote about their time in the Philippines and why they chose not to swim with the whale sharks. They described the scene as more like a tour in a zoo rather than an authentic nature exhibition. They didn’t just base their opinion on what they saw, but also on what they learned from the marine biologists they talked to.

While observing Oslob whale sharks for a study, these marine biologists said, “Poor and unregulated whale shark tourism can lead to short and potentially long-term impacts, like behavioral change and displacement from critical habitats.”

All cons and no pros

Whale shark sightseeing in Oslob does a lot of harm to these majestic creatures.

1. There is not enough nutritional value in the food given by tourists to whale sharks. They are fed only krill, which does not contain all the nutrients they need. This then affects their growth and reproduction.

2. The disruption of these whale sharks’ migration patterns affects their life cycle.It puts their reproduction at risk. This should be enough to sound the alarm, given how their population continues to decline.

3. Whale sharks’ familiarity with humans puts them at risk for abuse.Since rules are not strictly observed in prohibiting human interaction, researchers observed that more whale sharks associate even the non-tourist boats with feeding. They often get injured on the motors and oars.

The higher road

Despite the tainted reputation of Oslob, there are still other locations in the Philippines where we can see whale sharks (at a distance, of course) and other lovely creatures, without hurting them or endangering their lives. The following places are teeming with sea life and at the same time are protected, with interactions properly regulated. Hatfield recommends these places as well.

Donsol

Located in the province of Sorsogon, this is a better alternative to Oslob. It is important to note that whale shark sightings here are not at all guaranteed.

Your best chance of seeing them in the wild is from December to May, considering their migration pattern. Here, tourist interaction is strictly limited to swimming at a distance: no close encounters and definitely no touching. Violators are strongly apprehended and pulled out of the area.

Apo Island Turtle Sanctuary

Apo Island is easily accessible from Zamboanguita in Negros Oriental. The waters here are teeming with life and sea turtles are constantly spotted feeding on healthy supply of sea grass.

Tubbataha Reef

This is a heavily regulat-ed area with diving as the primary activity.

Tubbataha Reef is a pro-tected marine sanctuary. It is located in the middle of Sulu Sea and can only be accessed through Puer-to Princesa, Palawan via LiveAboard. Travel time can take up to 10 hours. Divers will be awed at the amazing underwater scene and the numerous marine species that live here, such as sharks, dol-phins, rays, and turtles.

This appeared in Animal Scene magazine’s June 2019 issue.

Related stories:
– Hurting without knowing: How thoughtless tourism can harm animals
– Viral video shows residents taking selfies with stranded whales in Negros Occidental
– Canada approves bill to ban capture and breeding of whales and dolphins