Despite its title of the world's largest fish, the whale shark isn't an easy species to search for. Most of the time, these peaceful giants reside in deep tropical waters far from shore. Once a year, however, in a dramatic confluence of hundreds of individuals, whale sharks gather off the coast of Mexico near Cancun to feed on the rich spawning grounds of fish and coral.
As you might expect, this event is not only a spectacle of nature, but also an attractive tourism opportunity for local companies. Whale sharks are slow-moving and feed close to the surface, making them easy to spot and interact with. These characteristics unfortunately also endanger them to boat strikes — a threat that left unchecked poses a serious risk to the species.
“Sadly, each year hundreds of whale sharks sustain injuries from boats that cross their paths,” Dr. Alistair Dove, director of research and conservation at Georgia Aquarium, said in a statement, “but if we can work with the Mexican government and encourage the regulation of whale shark ecotourism activities, we can help improve the situation and preserve this extraordinary experience for future generations”.
The Georgia Aquarium and the nonprofit Ocean Conservancy are striving to increase protections on two fronts: by reducing the number of boats (currently more than 300) that bring tourists to the area, and by working with the cruise line industry to modify the lanes of large ships that pass directly through the whale shark gathering. A course correction of only seven miles would safely put the species out of harm's way.
A petition campaign earlier this summer was successful in attracting the attention of Carnival, Royal Caribbean, and Norwegian cruise lines, with all agreeing this week to open a dialogue with both organizations on the issue.
"Ships are currently required by Mexican law to go at least 3 miles east of Isla Contoy, but just 4 additional miles would keep the ships from passing through this critical whale shark area and prevent possible negative interactions with these incredible creatures," the petition states.
The Georgia Aquarium is also asking people to sign a letter campaign asking the Mexican government to reign in the number of tourism boats operating at any given moment in the area.
"I urge you to reconsider the number of DGVS permits issued for whale shark ecotourism and limit it to no more than 75," the letter reads. "On any day there should be less than 40 boats in the area. I also urge you to allocate the necessary resources to provide continuous and effective enforcement of guidelines for tourists interacting with whale sharks so that fewer whale sharks are harassed by swimmers and injured by boat propellers."