A viral video reminds us why it’s wrong to touch whale sharks and how we can be better stewards of these gentle giants
MANILA, Philippines (Apr. 19, 2017) — A viral video of snorkelers crowding around and touching a whale shark has sparked online anger and calls for respect for the gentle sea creatures.
The video shows a group of snorkelers excitedly touching a whale shark and even swimming all around it. The snorkelers were swimming in Redang Island, a popular dive site in Malaysia. The video was shared on Facebook by ScubaHive – a website that promotes scuba diving in Malaysia – to call out the tour operators for not respecting the marine environment.
“[To the] Tour/snorkeling operator(s), SHAME ON YOU! What happened to respecting the ocean? All that was required was a little education, awareness, common sense, and some simple guidelines to follow,” wrote ScubaHive on it’s post.
Phillip Yong, the head of ScubaHive, told Rappler that the tour operator should educate their guests on how to interact properly with whale sharks.
“If you’re in the industry, you know of the unwritten rules, like ‘do not touch, do not litter, do not harass marine life. How difficult is it to impart some of this knowledge to the guests?” said Yong.
Whale sharks, which are in-fact sharks and not whales, are slow swimmers and pose no threat to humans, which makes them a popular tourist attraction when they swim close to the water surface. But, marine conservation experts say humans should avoid touching or swimming closely to the fish as it can cause undue stress for the fish. What’s worse, humans could transmit diseases to the whale sharks that could cause an infection.
“Wouldn’t you be stressed if this happens to you?” asked Yong.
The International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN), identified whale sharks and winghead sharks as an endangered species with global whale shark population declining more than 50% over the last 75 years.
Yong hopes the video will remind tour operators of the importance of educating tourists about how to properly interact with marine life, and educate the public about whale sharks.
“The Philippines is doing a commendable job with the whale shark encounter code of conduct, that enforces minimum distances between sharks, boats and swimmers,” added Yong.
In the two popular whale shark watching sites in the country: Oslob in Cebu and Donsol in Sorsogon, the community, tourists, and tour operators follow strict guidelines that were put in place to prevent harm to the whale shark population. But questions still remain on how much human interaction with whale sharks is permissible, and when should a clear line be drawn.
If you’re planning on going for a swim with these magnificent fish, here are some ways you can make the most out of your experience without harming the gentle giants:
- Educate yourself. Swimming with whale sharks is a fun and rewarding experience, even more when you understand more about them and their habitat before you take the plunge.
- Follow the rules! Attend the local briefing at your snorkeling destination to learn about the rules when interacting with the whale sharks. Usually they include staying away from the sharks by 4-6 meters, limiting the number of people or boats near the sharks, and not feeding them.
- Respect the whale sharks. Whale Sharks are an endangered species and deserve our respect and care. This means taking care of their home by not throwing trash into the seas and on the streets, where it can end up in the sea.
According to Yong, “we must not forget that we have to respect Mother Nature, and not alter the biological cycle of these magnificent creatures.”