Whale sharks may be the size of a school bus, but they are peaceful creatures that feed on plankton and fish eggs. The largest known gathering of them is in the Mexican state of Quintana Roo, and it’s become the focus of intense pressure from ecotourism. Boat operators in Isla Mujeres and Cancun have drastically expanded their fleets and lowered their prices so more and more tourists are hopping aboard.
With over 300 boats now licensed to visit the whale sharks, on many days, the boats outnumber the sharks. This creates a traffic jam on the water, and many sharks are showing signs of boat strike injury believed to be from unintentional contact with ecotour boats.
As the competition for tourist dollars has become increasingly fierce, some tour operators have begun offering money-back guarantees of whale shark sightings. This encourages boat captains to disregard guidelines for safe interaction with animals.
What’s more, the area serves as the western entrance to the Gulf of Mexico, making it one of the busiest commercial shipping lanes in the world. At least one cargo ship has already been forced to take evasive maneuvers to avoid collision with both the ecotour boats and the whale sharks. Cruise ships, including those operated by both Carnival and Royal Caribbean, also use these lanes, posing an additional threat. You can help by signing a petition to encourage cruise ship companies to slightly change their course in order to respect the sensitive habitat.