The whale shark is an elusive and deep diving, goliath ocean wanderer, whose be-spotted beauty is something of a spectacle to behold. Often called a gentle giant, on account of their size, whale sharks are also known and loved for their appetite for plankton, an animal which forms the foundation of the ocean food chain. For these reasons, and many others, this shark is often hailed as a ‘bucket list’ creature for many scuba divers far and wide. Across the world there are approximately 20 known whale shark hotspots with a vast majority of them being seasonal aggregations. The Maldives plays host to a very special aggregation, one that occurs naturally on a year round basis. It is this aggregation that the Maldives Whale Shark Research Programme (MWSRP) has been working to understand since the organisation’s humble beginnings.
Since MWSRP began as a scientific expedition in 2006, South Ari Marine Protected Area (SAMPA) has been our research home and hub; the place where we predominantly carry out our in-field surveys. During our surveys, our small in-field team of researchers and volunteers collect baseline data with the aim to advance the field of whale shark knowledge to aid in ultimately garnering better protections for this endangered species. In the programme’s 14 years of research MWSRP have come to believe that the predominantly juvenile male whale shark individuals are using the area of SAMPA as a secondary nursery. More specifically, we found that this unique Maldives aggregation consists of 91% male individuals with a calculated maturity age of 25 years and longevity of around 130 years. We have also found that this ‘staging ground’ for juvenile sharks has the highest re-sighting rate of individual sharks anywhere in the world.
These critical findings on whale shark distribution and ecology are in part what helped to determine the area as a place of scientific interest in need of protection status. In 2009 MWSRP worked with the Maldivian government, providing essential data which then went towards securing MPA status for South Ari MPA, which is also the largest protected area in Maldives. Today this remains an ongoing process with the need for the MPA to now become an area of regulated tourism to ensure the most ethical encounter for the animal and uphold safety for people. There is currently a draft management plan in the works which the Environmental Protection Agency have been working on for a couple of years now, with a view to deploy park rangers on SAMPA who will regulate the encounter ensuring the welfare of the sharks.
When snorkeling or diving with a whale shark, there are some guidelines which you as an individual can put into action in order to ensure minimal impact on the shark. By following this code of conduct you are more likely to have a longer encounter and be able to observe the whale shark behaving naturally:
- Most importantly, do not touch the shark. Sharks are not a tactile species and will most likely leave the encounter if you do touch it.
- Keep a distance of 3 metres from the body and 4 metres from the caudal fin. If you are too close to the shark it may perceive you as a threat and leave the encounter. Putting a good distance between yourself and the shark gives it room to leave and change direction freely.
- Do not obstruct the shark. Swimming in front of the shark may be tempting to get your photo of that big mouth, however this can cause the shark to become evasive and leave the encounter. When entering the water, we recommend doing it at a fair distance of around 20 metres from the shark to avoid disturbance or injury from the boat to the shark. Enter the water from a seated position to reduce noise and when in the water keep noise to a minimum. Whale sharks have the biggest eardrum in the animal kingdom so they are bound to be sensitive to noisy commotion!
As well as upholding whale shark code of conduct in the water, scuba divers and snorkelers can also directly contribute to conservation of whale sharks simply by sending their encounter photographs to be uploaded to their online database the Big Fish Network. Photo-identification forms the backbone of our database for whale sharks all around the Maldives, as every individual has its own unique spot pattern allowing us to track movements and overall health of the individuals. Photo ID also lends itself brilliantly to our research, along with many other wildlife studies, due to its non-invasive nature and citizen science friendly quality. Much of our data now comes from citizen scientists and local contributors ranging from liveaboards, resort excursions and guesthouses; and without their wonderful assistance our register of whale sharks would not be the 532 individuals strong that it is today.
As well as data collection being at the heart of our grassroots research Organisation (which is also a charity, NGO and non-profit) MWSRP holds community engagement as a core value, as well as the encouragement of industry stakeholder participation. We believe this combined approach of research and connecting people to the plight of the world’s biggest fish, lends itself greatly to the long-term welfare of the whale shark and the other creatures also residing in the same ecosystem.
The Maldives Whale Shark Research Programme seeks to advance the field of whale shark knowledge first and foremost, so that ultimately we have a better understanding of how best to protect and conserve this enigmatic species and its critical habitats. As we often only see it for a small amount of time, in only the most accessible fraction of it’s geographic range and 100 years plus life cycle, there are still many unanswered questions surrounding this shark. The global community of whale shark researchers are only in the past few years getting closer to answering questions about their highly mobile nature, their reproduction, rate of aging and growth. With big sharks come bigger questions and it’s very exciting that with every encounter submitted, we get closer to answering a few of those questions with the help of technology and connection with the citizen scientists of the diving community.
Chloe Winn, Assistant in-field Coordinator for the Maldives Whale Shark Research Programme (MWSRP).