The boat rocked gently side to side as the surrounding clear, turquoise water became congested with tourists who were jumping from the wooden structure bobbing at the surface, eager to see the gentle giant making its way closer to them. With a powerful swish of its tail, the whale shark (Rhincodon typus) propelled itself closer to the group, a stark contrast of dark blue and white against the pastel-hued tones of the tropical water. People clambered to get the best picture possible, either of the animal itself or a selfie with the creature behind them.

Welcome to whale shark tourism, the second largest product of shark-based tourism, raking in millions of dollars annually. It first kicked off in Australia’s Ningaloo Marine Park in the 1980s, and now in seen in the Maldives, Mexico, the Seychelles, and the Philippines… basically any place that has a seasonal presence of these animals. They are a highly migratory animal and are famous for crossing vast distances to aggregate in areas linked to high food availability (such as copepods, fish eggs, and crab larvae). Due to the docile nature of these filter-feeding elasmobranchs, they are the perfect ‘poster child’ for wildlife tourism endeavors for those wanting to swim with sharks that aren’t as scary as great white sharks.

But while there are numerous economic advantages this industry provides, critics consider it a ‘threat to wildlife and ecosystems,’ backing up their claims with documented impacts that include changes in physiology, seasonality, residency or abundance, space use, vertical activity, physical effects from divers, and overall dynamic body acceleration. Whale sharks are not immune to the impact; most whale shark behavioral studies within tourist hotspots show they react (through banking, diving, or changing direction) in the presence of tourists in Ningaloo, Australia. Similarly, the whale sharks in Donsol, Philippines avoid tourists and are thus likely to be disrupted from feeding; the same is observed for those in Mozambique and Southern Leyte, Philippines.

But, as new research shows, the story is different for provisioned whale sharks in Oslob. As located in the Philippines, Oslob is currently the world’s largest noncaptive provisioned whale shark tourism destination, receiving over 500,000 tourists in 2018 with an estimated US$10 million in ticket sales. Provisioning, or feeding, wildlife for tourism allows people to experience close encounters with otherwise elusive species. Only a few operators use whale shark provisioning outside of Oslob, such as those in Gorontalo and Indonesia. Previous studies at Oslob have shown that feeding the sharks not only doubled their residency times but increased the probability of resighting them over time, as well as increasing human-shark-boat interactions.

Thankfully, there are rules in place for ‘ethically’ interacting with the whale sharks here. The code of conduct states that swimmers and watchers are limited to 30 minutes for this shark interaction activity (no such time limit is set for scuba divers) and that they must stay a minimum of 5 meters (ft) from the shark’s sides or tail or 2 m (ft) from their mouth during interaction. The maximum number of tourists allowed to interact with one whale shark is six – unless they are scuba diving, then it is only four people – and there should be no “touching or riding of the whale sharks, no splashing, and only feeders are allowed to feed the whale sharks.” So how exactly do you attract a whale shark? By feeding daily between 250 and 400 kg of feed composed mainly of small shrimp!

Large Marine Vertebrates Research Institute Philippines (LAMAVE) decided to further understand the relationship between tourism activities and animal behaviour at a community managed operation in Oslob, using in-water behavioural observations of the whale sharks from February 2015 to May 2017.

“Our study showed that provisioned whale sharks with a long visitation history in Oslob are more likely to feed steadily withstanding the presence of tourists — which means that they do not readily react to anthropogenic stimuli like non-provisioned whale sharks. However, certain events such as obstructing the path of the shark and shark-to-shark contacts, significantly affect their behaviour. These events are inevitable because of overcrowding issues at the site pre-pandemic (average of 17.3 tourists present within 10 m from a shark), and high non-compliance of tourists to the minimum distance rule. From these findings, we can say that there is an issue with space and also with enforcing the code of conduct, especially regarding the minimum distance of tourists to each shark present in the tourism area. This study is important because it entails what factors affect the whale sharks in Oslob the most. Our results provide crucial information for the operators to improve tourism management and to mitigate tourism impacts on this endangered species,” said lead author Christine Legaspi.

LAMAVE also tagged four juvenile whale sharks with temperature-depth-recording tags between July 2013 and July 2014 to better understand their diving behaviour and habitat use and how this was influenced by provisioning activities. “We tagged four resident individual whale sharks with temperature-depth-recorder tags to get a detailed insight into their daily depth and temperature use. Our results showed that the whale sharks undertake deep dives to cooler waters following a prolonged period at the surface whilst food is provisioned in Oslob. This could be driven by a variety of factors, but given our overall estimation of expected metabolic rate increase when present at the site, it is likely that the sharks are thermoregulating (cooling down) following this prolonged exposure to warmer, surface temperatures. Overall, temperature and depth use was significantly different when sharks were present at the site and when away from it, suggesting that when the sharks are present at the site daily, their routine is different to what it would normally be. We recommended local and regional stakeholders reducing the number of hours the whale sharks are fed, and to do so in cooler waters slightly offshore, to reduce the overall expected metabolic shift we observed,” said lead author Gonzalo Araujo. Based on the long residency periods of some of the sharks, and the observation of a major shift in depth use and water temperature leading to an increase in the expected metabolic rate presented here, it is clear that provisioning alters the behaviour of the whale sharks frequently visiting Oslob.

Wildlife tourism is one of the fastest developing sectors and shark-based tourism is increasingly popular. While it is believed by many that it is possible to have interactions that have minimal impact on sharks, the latest research shows that there is poor human compliance to the regulations that exist to protect these vulnerable animals. In the case of whale sharks, it has been shown by LAMAVE and other researchers that there is considerable pressure on this endangered and nationally protected species. The message is clear: management intervention is necessary.

The group hopes the latest publications prompt stakeholders, such as the tour operators and the local government, to act. It is worth noting that these results are pre-pandemic, and that since, the site has imposed a capacity limit of 1,000 tourists a day and limited the provisioning hours. Tourism has dropped over 90% since the start of the SARS-CoV-19 pandemic. This is perhaps a great opportunity to go back to the drawing board amongst stakeholders and plan a more sustainable post-pandemic tourism interaction. It is a privilege to share a planet with these gorgeous animals, and it is our responsibility to make sure our wanting to check that bucket list item does not harm them in the process.