May 28, 2015

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Weighing in close to 45,000 pounds and nearing 40 feet in length, the whale shark (Rhincodon typus) is the world’s largest living fish species. These enormous filter feeders grow to be so large on a diet of tiny plankton – microscopic plants and animals that float in the water column. Slowly moving through the water like living submarines, whale sharks gulp down vast quantities of these tiny critters and congregate in areas of high plankton concentrations. It’s this quest for food that brings whale sharks to the coast of Isla Mujeres, Mexico each summer. These gentle giants gather by the dozens or even hundreds from June through September, slurping down fish eggs and enchanting tourists.

Photo © Amanda Cotton

Photo © Amanda Cotton

Ecotourism groups like A Cotton Photo lead trips out to snorkel alongside whale sharks, enabling seasoned divers and ocean newbies alike to experience the grace and enormity of these beautiful creatures. Careful to advise visitors not to touch the sharks or disturb their feeding, ecotourism trips such as this offer respectful and often intimate encounters with the underwater world.

Whale shark tourism operations may sound intrusive and potentially problematic, and some are, but the Mexican government has tightened regulations to limit the number of boats and swimmers allowed in the water in order to mitigate any impacts on the sharks. Actually, swimming with whale sharks in the wild can actually help protect them, with tourism dollars enabling local economies to avoid more harmful forms of shark-related commerce like shark fin exports and poaching. A piece in Smithsonian Magazine last summer reported that global income from shark tourism is expected to surpass that of shark fisheries in the next 20 years.

Angelo Villagomez, manager of the Pew Charitable Trusts’ global shark conservation campaign, said, “Sharks are worth more alive. Sharks are fished because they have value in fisheries, but a lot of tropical island locations, especially holiday destinations, have found that they can get a lot more out of their resources with dive tourism.” Isla Mujeres is a leading example of this transition, with locals stating that their livelihoods are based on healthy whale shark populations. The island hosts an annual Whale Shark Festival (this year from July 18-24) to celebrate the sharks and highlight the need for their protection.

Video by Dean Harris during a whale shark encounter trip with A Cotton Photo last summer.

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