Whale Shark Tourism in Ningaloo Reef
Since the late 1980s it is possible to swim with whale sharks at Ningaloo Reef in western Australia, which is the oldest and most researched shark based tourism site in the world. This industry is growing even more, as the results of a study have shown that between 2006 and 2010 the number of tours and the number of days interacting with whale sharks have markedly increased. With the popularity of this activity it is important to well manage the companies proposing this activity, with the help of strong regulations, in order to respect the welfare and well being of the whale sharks.
Regulation and code of conduct: There are several tiers of legislation protecting the whale shark while they are in Australian waters: the Commonwealth Environmental Protection and Biodiversity Conservation Act 1999,the Western Australian’s Wildlife and Conservation Act 1950 and the Fish Resources Management Act 1994 provide protection for whale sharks. In addition, it is the Department of Environment and Conservation (DEC) that regulates the tourist interactions with whale sharks, with the objective of ensuring that these migrating animals are not disturbed by boating and interaction activities. The Whale Shark Code of Conduct was also developed by DEC and regulates a number of the negative variables involved with animal-tourist interaction. For instance, it prohibits: attempts to touch or ride on a whale shark, the use of flash photography, approaching closer than three meters from the head/body and four meters from the tail, and the use of motorised propulsion and Scuba diving equipment.
Problems and threats: Wildlife watching tourism is not necessarily positive for the wildlife that is being observed and although regulations are managing whale shark tourism in Australia, problems may still arise. In the case of the whale shark the proximity and number of swimmers and boats may result in forsaken feeding opportunities, changes in breeding patterns and loss of site fidelity. Also, although it is not permitted to touch the whale shark at Ningaloo Reef, there are risks of collisions with poorly experimented snorkelers, which may harm the animal and Crowding presents also potential impacts upon the whale sharks.
Another problem arises when doing wildlife watching tourism with migratory species: many marine species, such as the whale shark, do not respect state boundaries. This is why different regulations in each state of Australia does not facilitate the sustainable development of whale shark watching tourism. Appropriate regulation is required not only in the whole Australian continent, but must also be matched in the neighbouring countries, as whale sharks spend only a limited period in Australian waters. Finally, there are few studies that investigate the responses of whale sharks to human interactions. This is why further research is required, for example in order to understand the carrying capacity of this activity and the number of interactions that individual whale sharks can handle per year.
Wildlife tourism in general is not easy to manage as the welfare of the animal as well as the way tourists and companies interact with the animals have to be taken into account. In the case of the whale shark tourism at Ningaloo, the activity may seem well supervised as several legislations and a code of conduct help regulate tourist-whale sharks interactions. However, when it comes to a migratory species swimming amongst seas of several countries, the regulations in Western Australia Ningaloo cannot suffice. Moreover, the code of conduct is not enough to prevent all annoyances that whale sharks may suffer from, which can lead to think that no matter how strong the regulations may be, the supervision of tourist-animal interactions needs to be stronger.