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Alifu Dhaalu Atoll Whale Shark point at stake

Mohamed Rehan
03 December 2022, MVT 19:17
Capture from a video uploaded to Twitter showing swarms of eager tourists gathered at Alifu Dhaalu Maamigili whale shark point-- Photo: Jeff Rose / Twitter
Mohamed Rehan
03 December 2022, MVT 19:17

A recent two-minute video showing near hundreds of swimmers packed at the famous "Whale Shark Point" in Alif Dhaal atoll, has attracted public criticism. The video showed several tourists gathered to the point, waiting to catch glimpses of the majestical rare shark breed.

Each day the area is packed with swarms of eager tourists from nearby resorts – as part of their respective excursion events – with little to no room for swimmers to move about.

Since the video has gone viral, it has attracted criticism from several industry stakeholders and members of the public. Many have lambasted the organizers for bringing too many tourists into a single spot and leaving them without the room to swim.

Others have said this goes against the principles of eco-tourism the Maldives is attempting to champion, along with sustainable tourism practices. Many have highlighted easier alternatives, that could relax the number of tourists brought to the location simultaneously while still allowing for an enjoyable whale shark viewing experience.

Divers swim close to the majestic and calm shark family variant-- Photo: Nabeeh MV | Instagram

Whale Sharks are found in tropical oceans, making Maldives one of the few countries where you can see the gentle giants, although they are not abundantly sighted everywhere in the country.

Whale sharks in the Maldives, are often sighted in two particular areas; one, near Baa atoll Hanifaru – the atoll is a declared as a UNESCO biosphere reserve due to its rich biodiversity – and the other is Alif Dhaalu Maamigili, with comparatively more sightings from the latter location.

Due to the rare nature of the breed and the equally difficult sightings of the largest fish species, it has become a favored and popular activity for foreign travelers visiting the Maldives. Each year, many travelers flock to the island nation exclusively to swim with whale sharks, and observe them in their natural habitat.

Maldives Whale Shark Research Program (MWSRP) claimed Alif Dhaalu atoll attracted a total of 78,000 tourists in 2013, visiting exclusively to view whale sharks. This was around the onset of local tourism expansion in the island nation; which had officially kicked off two years earlier in 2010. MWSRP’s research also found tourists had spent an annual total of USD 9.4 million for the excursion alone.

Whale sharks are usually sighted around morning hours, which also makes it the busiest hours around the creature’s hotspots. Close to over 20 to 30 speed boats travel to these hotspots each day carrying thousands of eager travelers.

The Issues at Hand

A review by MWSRP entitled “The Impact of Injury on Apparent Survival of Whale Sharks in South Ari Atoll Marine Protected Area” highlights whale shark sightings from Alif Dhaalu atoll decreased to 35 percent from 48 percent between 2006 and 2019. On other hand, whale shark sighted with injuries for the same period rose from 24 to 45 percent.

The review further notes that sightings of whale sharks without any visible injury declined significantly since 2014. The research assessment further notes these animals received the greatest number of their injuries from ocean vessels, with heavy damages sustained from vessel propellers. The review included photographs captured during the research, with some of these sharks found completely without their dorsal fins.

Important Findings from the Research

- Patterns on each individual whale shark is distinct; making them identifiable from one another. The researchers identified the number of whale sharks by capturing pictures of them and assessing the patterns on each individual shark through a scientific approach; using a pattern recognition software

- Most of these sharks showed visible signs of injuries on their bodies

- 61 percent of whale shark population showed varying degrees of injuries to them between 2014 and 2019

- A whale shark first sighted on March 23, 2014 without any injuries, was sighted again six days later, on April 1, 2014 with visible injuries on its back

- Another whale shark sighted without injuries on January 14, 2012 was later discovered 122 days later on May 15, 2012 with deep scratches on its back

Injured sharks often rest at the shark point found in Alif Dhaalu atoll. MWSRP notes these creatures often swim to the said area for rest and recuperation, owing to the rich ecosystem found there; making it the perfect feeding ground for them.

One of the researchers of MWSRP, Iruthisham Zareer, while confirming they began their research in 2006, went on to note that over the past 15 years Alif Dhaalu atoll has become recognized as a whale shark hotspot globally. Unlike other such areas, she said, the place is special because whale sharks can be sighted at any time of the year.

Maldives Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), identifying the rare nature of these creatures, had in 2009 implemented a special regulation instructing travelers and swimmers to maintain specific conduct while at whale shark points. EPA had restricted vessels to travel beyond 5 knots (3.9 kilometers per hour) in whale shark contact zones.

“But we have often noticed many of the vessels that travel through these zones go at the speed of 10 knots [18.5 kilometers per hour]”, Iruthisham said.

She notes that high speeds maintained by vessels traveling from whale shark contact zones meant, it is difficult to achieve thermoregulation for the sharks while it also disturbs their rest. These creatures often receive injuries while swimming to the surface from vessels that travel at fast speeds.

MWSRP have repeatedly voiced concerns over the lack of oversight despite existing regulations.

Unenforced Regulations

According to EPA guidelines, vessels cannot travel in the zone without acquiring permission from the agency. The agency extends permission to vessels traveling in the area exclusively for tourism purposes.

EPA Guidelines note that the contact zone of whale sharks is a radius of 250 meters from the point of the shark’s sighting. Vessels traveling closer than the 250-meter radius must hoist a special flag indicating, the vessel had entered into the contact zone. According to regulations, a second vessel entering into the zone while another is present, is restricted. Each vessel can remain in a contact zone for a maximum of 40 minutes, while each vessel can allow a maximum of 12 swimmers to disembark into the contact zone.

- The closest a vessel within a contact zone, can come near a whale shark is 10 meters

- Vessels within a distance of 10 meters between them and whale sharks, must shut down their engines, should a shark begin traveling towards the vessel

- Swimmers disembarking from the vessels, within the contact zones, must disembark without interrupting the traveling routes of whale sharks

- Touching or teasing the shark as well as vessels traveling above them are prohibited

Despite these regulations, it is not translated into action. The vessels gathering into contact zones, as well as the swimmers do not appear to honor EPA guidelines let alone show concern to the safety of these creatures. Adding to the issue is the failure of EPA in actively monitoring the area to ensure whether their regulations are upheld.

Meanwhile, President of Alif Dhaalu atoll Council Ali Naseer confirmed the authority has repeatedly inquired from EPA to transfer discretionary authority to them in monitoring the area. However, formal discussions between the parties have not borne any positive fruit. On the other hand, the authority confirmed receiving multiple complaints from locals over the increase of malpractice or misconduct in the area.

Who’s Taking the Responsibility?

MWSRP researcher Iruthisham Zareer had pointed out to the lack of enforceability of EPA regulations to ensure whale shark zones are properly monitored for misconduct.

“The main objective of our research is to provide policy makers with the information they need to regulate such environments and to familiarize them with the natural and economic benefits of these areas,” she said.

Iruthisham highlights Alif Dhaalu atoll’s current conditions with regards to whale shark excursions are unsafe for the creatures, which have already been addressed by several of these excursion organizers. MWSRP is already working with other pro-environment associations, in a collaborative effort to increase awareness campaigns among excursion providers.

Furthermore, the association has listed out set of recommendations, while accentuating the need to increase monitoring protocols. Other recommendations include;

- Limiting the number of vessels in the area through a zoning system

- Creating schedules and allowing specific types of vessels into the whale shark zone

- Utilizing electronic monitoring systems to ensure vessels followed regulations

- Issuing licenses to crew members and guides of the vessels frequenting the zone carrying tourists

- Creating awareness among tourists towards regulations, prior to excursions

MWSRP has played a frontal role in policy creation towards whale shark preservation in the Maldives. The association continuously shares its findings with EPA and other relevant bodies to ensure further policy implementation. The association was consulted with the preparation of the management plan drafted by EPA to monitor the area.

Similar to Alif Dhaalu atoll, Baa Atoll Hanifaru; another whale shark point, is facing similar predicaments. Known as "Hanifaru Bay", the area serves as a den for not only whale sharks but manta rays as well. Baa atoll now also faces lack of monitoring and stronger policies to ensure relevant authorities were equipped to handle misconduct.

Whale shark experience for tourists can be organized without disturbing the habitat of the creatures while maintaining best environmental practices.