Quantcast

Is the Whale Shark Tourism Industry Conservation or Exploitation?

Animals

By Neela Eyunni

It was 4:45 a.m. when I arrived at Tanawan Beach in Oslob, Cebu. Despite the darkness, the parking lot was already bustling with tour buses and visitors, who had come from all over the world. Local boatmen, easy identified by their long sleeve blue shirts, prepared for the influx of visitors to come.


Like everyone else, I had made the long journey to this little-known town in the Philippines to see one thing … whale sharks.

Snorkelers in Oslob, Cebu try to get close enough to take selfies with the whale sharks. Photo credit: Studio H2O

A quick internet search on where to swim with whale sharks revealed unbelievable images of snorkelers just a few feet away from the giant filter feeders. Furthermore, Tanawan Beach, the area where the whale shark interactions occur, guaranteed sightings. I could hardly contain my exhilaration as I arrived at the beach that first morning.

The reality of the situation, however, was far from what I had expected. After heading out in a boat with several other tourists, I spotted my first whale shark. My initial excitement soon faded when I saw the sharks swallowing handfuls of food being tossed into the water by Tanawan Beach staff. The whale sharks looked more like domestic pets than wild animals as they followed the feeder boats, continuously gulping down food at the surface.

Boatmen at Tanawan Beach get their boats in position to take tourists out into the water. Photo credit: Studio H2O

My experience at Tanawan Beach no doubt left me disappointed, but more importantly it left me concerned about the sharks' welfare. How were these interactions, which included giving the sharks food, impacting their behavior?

Less than two months later I was back with a film crew. The documentary On the Brink: Uncharted Waters follows my personal journey to answers my initial questions. It reveals how some practices could leave the sharks vulnerable to poachers and ultimately threaten the survival of the entire species. It further examines how this in turn could have a devastating impact on the marine ecosystem. Referring to the film's title, the balance between conservation and exploitation is “on the brink."

However, the issue of whale shark tourism in the Philippines is complex and it's impossible to fully understand without looking at the human aspect as well. The whale shark interactions have single-handedly lifted Oslob, Cebu from extreme poverty, with residents only recently gaining access to healthcare and education. Oslob's mayor, Ronald Guaren, insists the revenue generated by the whale shark tourism industry goes directly back into the town's development.

The question is: How do we balance the needs of people and the needs of sharks to make the industry responsible and sustainable?

The answer may not be simple. But by looking at other whale shark tourism destinations in the Philippines, like Donsol in Luzon Island, I've learned that it is possible. Donsol's whale shark tourism industry has a strict ban on feeding and operates for just six months out of the year.

The Philippines is home to one of the largest whale shark populations in the world, with more than 900 identified individuals. Photo credit: Studio H2O

Through my experience, I have come to understand that the first step is to create a diversified economy. Whale sharks are wild and unpredictable animals. By relying solely on them for income, local governments are leaving themselves financially vulnerable. The industry also requires tighter nationwide regulations, something that conservation groups in the Philippines are currently working towards.

But lasting change can only occur when we as tourists choose to put the welfare of animals over our own interests. It is this shift in mindset and the acknowledgement that our individual actions can and do make a difference that is the key to sustainable shark tourism, not only in the Philippines but around the world.

EcoWatch Daily Newsletter

Mr.TinDC / Flickr / CC BY-ND 2.0

By Adda Bjarnadottir, MS

Many nutrients are essential for good health.

Read More Show Less
albedo20 / Flickr

By Pat Thomas

Throughout the U.S., major food brands are trying to get rid of GMO ingredients — not necessarily for the right reasons, but because nearly half of consumers say they avoid them in their food, primarily for health reasons.

But the CEO of Impossible Foods, purveyor of the Impossible Burger, is bucking that trend.

Read More Show Less
Sponsored
People in more than 100 countries are expected to take part in well over 1,000 strikes on May 24 to demand climate action from their governments. @ExtinctionR / Twitter

By Julia Conley

Two months after what was reportedly the largest international climate demonstration ever, young people around the world are expected to make history again on Friday with a second global climate strike.

Read More Show Less
DoneGood

By Cullen Schwarz

Ethical shopping is a somewhat new phenomenon. We're far more familiar with the "tried and tested" methods of doing good, like donating our money or time.

Read More Show Less
Asian elephants frolic in Kaudulla Wewa at Kaudulla National Park in central Sri Lanka. David Stanley / CC BY 2.0

When it comes to saving some of the planet's largest animals, a group of researchers says that old methods of conservation just won't cut it anymore.

Read More Show Less
Sponsored
Pexels

A low-fat diet that prioritizes eating healthier foods like fruits and vegetables each day could lower the risk a woman's risk of dying from breast cancer, according to a multi-decade study published this month.

Read More Show Less
smcgee / Flickr / CC BY-NC 2.0

Several New York City Starbucks exposed customers to a potentially deadly pesticide, two lawsuits filed Tuesday allege.

Read More Show Less
Drinks with plastic straws on sale at London's Borough Market. Susie Adams / Getty Images

The UK government has set a date for a ban on the sale of single use plastics, The Guardian reported Wednesday. From April 2020, the sale of plastic straws, drink stirrers and cotton buds with plastic stems will be prohibited in England.

Read More Show Less