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Is it Ethical to Swim with Whale Sharks?

So, you’ve always wanted to swim with the largest fish in the sea, but you’re concerned about whether or not it is ethical to swim with whale sharks? Let’s discuss.

What is a Whale Shark?

Whale sharks are the world’s largest fish and they can grow up to 40 feet long, which is about the size of a school bus. In July 2016, whale sharks were officially put on the endangered species list by the IUCN, or the International Union for Conservation of Nature. They can migrate huge distances across the globe every year, yet there is a lot of mystery as to where they actually go. The largest fish in the ocean basically disappears for 6 months out of the year when they’re not in warm shallow waters feeding. Researchers think that the sharks feed in the coastal tropical areas, but the females travel to the middle of the ocean when it is time to give birth. No scientist has ever witnessed a whale shark giving birth.

Many people see these giant fish through swimming tours and the most common places that people do that are in Mexico and the Philippines. However, you can also find them in Belize, Honduras, Panama, Thailand, Australia, Maldives, & Africa. It’s important to note that not all of these places have ethical whale shark swimming experiences, so make sure you look into the experience before booking.

Mexico’s Ethical Whale Shark Swimming Tours

A person swimming with whale sharks | Is it Ethical to Swim with Whale Sharks?

In 2009, the Mexican government created a Whale Shark Biosphere Reserve, a protected area for whale sharks, and enacted laws to ensure the safe management of whale shark swimming tours. These tours provide a huge economy boost to otherwise remote communities of people, who have now come to rely on these tours for survival. 

There are very strict regulations set in place to protect the whale sharks so human activities don’t disrupt their natural behaviors. Some of these rules include:

  1. Do not get too close
  2. Do not touch them
  3. Always wear a life vest so you can’t get under the water or swim underneath them
  4. Only 2 people and 1 guide in the water from each boat at a time.
  5. Seeing and swimming with the whale sharks is NOT guaranteed. 

However, unlike many other protected areas that are set up and monitored by officials, the whale shark activities aren’t constantly being monitored by officials, which leaves tour operators open to basically do whatever they want. In the high season there can be upwards of 400 boats in the water with groups up to 12 people in each boat. So make sure you go with a reputable tour company who has pledged to follow the rules.

Mexico appears to be making better conservation efforts to help protect this endangered species, as opposed to other operations like in the Philippines. Specifically in Oslob, Philippines, tour operators have been found feeding them, overcrowding the waters, and letting people touch the whale sharks. This disrupts their migration patterns and they’re feeding the whale sharks nutrient-free food which is making them grow smaller year after year. Additionally, feeding the whale sharks means they are attracted to boats, which leads to propeller cuts and severe damage to their bodies. Avoid whale shark encounters in Oslob, Philippines entirely and make sure there are ethical practices in place if you choose to swim with them elsewhere in the world.

So, is it Ethical to Swim with Whale Sharks?

A whale shark swimming | Is it Ethical to Swim with Whale Sharks?

Simply by creating jobs surrounding this activity, the whale sharks will be protected because the local economies now rely on whale shark tourism to survive. Additionally, tour operators who once relied mainly on commercial fishing, can now make money on a much more sustainable practice, which helps to save our oceans. While swimming with the sharks doesn’t actually benefit them in any way, it’s encouraging conservation by eliminating fishing in the region and illegal hunting practices. There is still a demand and markets for whale sharks, primarily in China, for their meat, fins, and oil which are sold for food, and their skin for bags. A single whale shark can sell for tens of thousands of dollars.

Ultimately, the decision is yours to make about whether or not you feel comfortable swimming with whale sharks. It would be highly discouraged to participate in any program where the sharks are being interfered with in any way, including feeding or touching them. However, with the right program, your dollars will help to protect the whale sharks for generations to come. Let us know in the comments if you’ve experienced an ethical whale shark tour!

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