Watch- don't touch!!! Our Volunteers get involved in Whale Shark Awareness
A few weeks ago, some of us from base were lucky enough to go swimming with whale sharks. The opportunity to see one of these giants swimming in the open water is one I won’t soon forget.
Reaching around 16m long, and weighing up to 60 tonnes, they are the world’s largest shark, and are far bigger than anything I’ve seen in the wild before. I was expecting them to be large, but even at just 8m, the actual immensity was shocking. Swimming at full speed to keep stride with the massive head, I was exhausted after only a few minutes. The shark, on the other hand, was just cruising along easily, with effortless, lazy swishes of its powerful tail.
After such a fantastic experience, I was very excited to hear just a few weeks later that GVI were teaming up with WWF and Mexico’s National Commission of Protected Natural Areas (CONANP) to help out with a whale shark awareness program for the second year running. The project aims to protect both whale sharks and the massive tourism industry they generate, as they migrate along the eastern Coast of Mexico during the summer. The plan was to hit the streets and dive shops of Playa Del Carmen, Tulum and Cancun to help increase awareness of these animals.
Our Head Science Officer on base, Marce, lead the day. She presented a public talk at Phantom Divers, Playa Del Carmen, to those interested in learning more about the sharks. The presentation covered their biology and the conservation efforts of the program, as well as the rules and guidelines for interacting with them as a tourist.
Set up to protect the sharks and ensure they continue to return to their feeding grounds, the rules allow tour operators and tourists to interact with these animals without causing stress or harm. The rules include staying at least 5m away when in the water, always swimming with a qualified guide, ensuring boats are always more than 10m away and entering the water slowly and quietly. Marce also emphasised the importance of not touching the sharks, explaining that it can damage a delicate mucus layer covering the shark’s skin, which helps protect them against disease and parasites.
Following the talk it was great to hear the conversations generated. Many who’d attended had been working in the industry for some time, and were still unaware of many of the rules. Comments about the value of the program, and the need for better enforcement and greater awareness were made.
After Marce’s talk we were ready to take to the streets to help spread the whale shark word. We were armed with bracelets, stickers, posters and our whale shark t-shirts, with the slogan “Watch – Don’t Touch” – pretty fitting to wear in Playa, one of Mexico’s most popular party hotspots.
Posters, which ran through all the rules, were also given out to various hotels, hostels, restaurants and dive shops, in the hopes that more people would become familiar with them before embarking on a tour.
Tourists responses were varied, but for the most part they were interested in learning more, and many who had already booked tours mentioned that they had not been made aware of all the rules. While a little concerning, this also helped to highlight the importance of the work we were doing.
Hopefully, some of the people we spoke with will now have a greater understanding of the necessity to respect and care for these beautiful creatures. More importantly, I hope that we were able to make a big impact on the tour operators and dive stores we spoke to. As custodians of these creatures, I hope they will endeavour to follow and enforce the rules, and help spark a passion for conservation in their clients. The project is only begging at this stage, but I look forward to following it closely as it grows next year and beyond.
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