We all start travelling with a little bucket list, those little travel must-do’s that will make your trip even better. For me, this was seeing a whale shark! Just as so many people, those gentle giants have always intrigued me & seeing them in their natural habitat was a lifelong dream.
Willing to know more about them, I signed up for a Marine Ecology & Conservation Internship at the Whale Shark & Oceanic Research Center (WSORC) in Utila. A month working around fish, conservation, diving … and hopefully lucky enough to see one gentle giant.
After two weeks at WSORC my bucket list changed dramatically. I was lucky enough, actually feeling as spoiled as a little rich kid, with three (!) whale shark encounters.
My first Ocean Safari (that’s what WSORC calls their responsible Whale Shark encounter trips) started out promising. Everyone was thoroughly briefed, respecting the responsible encounter rules, not more than 8 people in the water at the same time, keeping the required distance from the shark.
When the boat sailed out the excitement only grew. Looking at the horizon for birds or a sign for a tuna boil, we waited for those magical words “There’s a whale shark!”. Then it was time to get our gear on, waiting in tension for the ‘GO GO GO’ of our captain. Getting into the water as calm as possible, seeing that majestic creature eating, swimming underneath you and eventually watching him disappear into the big blue ocean. In silence we go back to the boat, then our excitement comes out…. It’s still the most incredible thing ever!
Limited amount of people with the animal, no in-water noise, no touching, keeping distance, no stress for the animal & maximal encounter time….
This is how it should be.
This is how it could be.
But unfortunately this is not reality.
Up to 4 other boats came up close. Doesn’t matter how many people are already in the water, every one on those boats jumps in, splashing & screaming around the animal, duck-diving to get that one 100-likes-Facebook-selfie, boats blowing their horns or even cruising in between the snorkelers. And this story repeated itself several times.
In just a couple of seconds this highlight turned into the biggest disappointment of my trip.
So why are these ‘responsible encounter rules’ (obligated by Honduran law by the way) so important for you and the whale shark?
Number one: noise, stress, getting too close makes the animal dive away. You could have had a couple of minutes with the animal, now you just got a couple of seconds.
He was eating, and had to stop to get away from the crowd. If you had know that a whale shark needs up to 8 hours of feeding per day, I don’t need to tell you that an afternoon accompanied by boats & bystanders affects this.
It stresses the animal out. What’s the risk for Utila? That they will change their habitat and they’ll stop coming back here…
I’m aware & I care.
Now you’re aware, do you care? Next time you have the opportunity to swim with those amazing creatures: behave, keep quiet, limit the amount of people, spread the word & most of all: ENJOY your time with this amazing creature. And if just one person does that: I’m a happy WSORC-er that can check of the newest point of my bucket list!
Imagine you’re a superstar, eating at a restaurant, suddenly 15 screaming paparazzi come to your table. Will you still go back?
Marijke Van Landeghem
Marine Conservation Intern, March 2017