Visitors love Fermin. The whale shark swims close to tourist boats, knowing they have treats for him. The juvenile male is part of a group of six whale sharks being studied by the Large Marine Vertebrates Project Philippines. The research team began its work around Tan-awan, Oslob, Philippines in March 2011.
On July 16, 2012 Fermin’s only scars were the ones all of the sharks sport when they are fed by the tourist industry – callouses from rubbing their faces against the boats. The big shark lay low for a few days. When he reappeared on July 19th he had 11 new cuts along his left side, starting at his mouth, slashing over his eye, and down his side. Two of them were quite deep.
The pictures on the project’s blog are a disturbing reminder of the risks faced by marine animals so beloved of tourist operations and tourists. Although no motor boats are allowed within the area plied by the tourist boats, whale sharks don’t read the rules. Once they associate boats with food, they are no longer safe.
Fermin is not the only whale shark to have been slashed by propellers in the Tan-awan area. The number of injuries is rising, yet nearby towns are considering starting their own shark-feeding programs. Tourist dollars will rise. So will shark injuries.
Whale can grow to a length of more than 40 feet. They are gentle giants, making them the perfect targets for tourist boats. Besides the likelihood of injuries, they are also changing their migratory patterns to stay near the feeding areas. Samantha Craven, a scientist with the Large Marine Vertebrates Project told LiveScience:
If these sharks reach sexual maturity and don’t migrate to breeding grounds, they are effectively removed from the population and would no longer be adding to the numbers of genetic diversity of their species, which is listed as ‘vulnerable to extinction’ by the IUCN [International Union for Conservation of Nature].
Once again wild creatures occupying a unique niche in the web of life are being exploited for the amusement of humans. If they disappear because of it, ecotourism operators and their customers will move on to the next sensation. The whale shark’s role in the ecosystem, however, will not be so easily replaced.
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Photo from lotuspilgrim via Flickr Creative Commons