A Guilty Pleasure?
Updated: May 19
Shark tourism has become increasingly popular in recent years, and trips to see, snorkel and dive with sharks is now a booming industry all over the world. As a result, there have been enumerable benefits to local communities; providing jobs and boosting local economies, but also to the sharks themselves; improving education and awareness, and boosting conservation of endangered species... But is there another, less pleasant side to shark tourism? Is it actually good for the sharks?... Is it doing more harm than good?... In short, is it ethical?
To Feed or Not To Feed?
A case study which has received a lot of attention in the shark tourism debate is that of whale shark (Rhincodon typus) trips in the Philippines. In this part of the world, shark tourism is centred around the municipality of Oslob, Cebu, where "provisioning" (aka feeding) is used to attract sharks into close proximity with vessels, snorkelers and divers (Zieglera et al, 2018, Araujo et al, 2020).
Research has shown that this provisioning alters the natural behaviour of whale of sharks (Zieglera et al, 2018, Araujo et al, 2020).
For example, a study conducted in the Philippines has shown that whale sharks which are fed for tourism spend more time at the surface and shift their daily deep-diving patterns. These findings show us that whale sharks use their habitat differently and alter their daily rythmn in order to exploit an unnatural food resource (Araujo et al, 2020).
A Bad Habit?
Scientists studying whale shark provisioning in the Philippines have expressed concern that the sharks spend more time in warmer water where they receive food from tourism boats. This could have implications for their metabolism, which may affect their health and reproductive fitness in the long-term (Araujo et al, 2020).
The problem is that there is not yet any definitive scientific study that shows feeding whale sharks harms them, but equally, we do not have any evidence proving that it is not harmful.
Bump and Grind
Yet, There are studies which do show that certain aspects of tourism in the Philippines are undeniably harmful to whale sharks... Boat strikes are causing serious injuries to whale sharks in the Philippines (Penketh et al, 2020).
A team of scientists photographed injuries on over 150 sharks in Oslob and found that 57% of individuals had major scarring caused by human activities. Lacerations from boats and propellors - abrasions and scrapes, sometimes even with boat paint visible in the wound - were seen on 28% of the sharks they observed! (Penketh et al, 2020).
There were even multiple examples of amputations! Where entire segments of the whale shark's dorsal fin had been sheared off (Penketh et al, 2020).
The scientists found that the whale sharks visiting the provisioning area in Oslob had significantly more scars than sharks at other feeding sites in the world. They concluded that the feeding methods are directly responsible for causing injuries to the whale sharks in the Philippines (Penketh et al, 2020).
The Law of the Land
There are laws in the Philippines governing how people may interact with whale sharks in the wild. Philippine municipal ordinance states that tourism boats must stay a minimum safe distance from the whale sharks. The rules also state that tour operators must ensure tourists do not touch any sharks and stay at least 5 meters from the side / 2 metres from the front of the shark when in the water. Each shark must only be interacted with for 30 minutes maximum, and only six snorkelers and four scuba divers should be allowed in the water around a shark at once. Heavy splashing and flash photography should also be discouraged (Schleimer et al, 2015).
However, when a team of scientists assessed how well these rules were adhered to in Oslob, there were dismal findings...
They calculated that 85% of snorkelers came too close to the sharks and the maximum number of people interacting with sharks at once was exceeded more often than not! They concluded that the sharks were commonly crowded and harassed in the Philippines (Schleimer et al, 2015).
"The welfare status of whale sharks is difficult to assess. Whale sharks in Oslob are free from hunger and thirst, but whether they are free from discomfort, free from pain, injury or disease, free to express normal behaviours, or free from fear and distress is unclear.”
- Zieglera et al, 2018
Whaling Up the Benefits
The difficulty with this issue lies in the trade-off between benefits and costs to the whale sharks... we have already discussed the cons, but what are the pros of whale shark tourism?
Well, diving tourism in the Philippines offers the whale sharks default protection, as the local people become incentivised to value live sharks more than those extracted in fisheries. This is clearly good for whale shark conservation. The shark diving but also benefits the local community, as it boosts their economy. This type of tourism also provides a platform for education about whale sharks and provides opportunities for scientists to conduct more research at the site (Zieglera et al, 2018).
But, surely there must be a better way than how shark diving is currently conducted in the Philippines?
In my humble opinion, laws need to be strictly adhered to and breaches be punishable by law. That is the only way that the whale sharks in Oslob will genuinely benefit from shark diving tourism. There are many shark diving sites around the world where provisioning is limited and interactions with the animals are strictly controlled, so I see no reason why the same methods can't be implemented in the Philippines. After all, how could anyone enjoy their diving experience in good conscience if they knew they were causing harm to such a beautiful, gentle animal?
If you are lucky enough to ever be travelling in the Philippines and would like to see the whale sharks, it is of critical importance that you research the tour operators you are considering and decide whether you are comfortable with how they treat the whale sharks:
There are many websites out there with ratings and reviews, which you can check out via a simple Google search. People who take these kind of tours often give very candid reviews about the ethics of the company.
You can also check out the people who will take you on the tour. Legitimate companies often include a tab on their website to introduce you to their team. So you can look at their credentials and decide if you think it will be an educational and respectful experience.
I would also advise you to look through the photos from each company. Tour operators often include encounter images on their websites which you can assess. Ask yourself, 'Are they too close to the sharks?' and 'Will there be too many of us crowding the sharks at once?'.
Never join a tour you think is questionable. You get the quality you pay for, and it may be that a more expensive option is more ethical and legitimate.
When on your tour, do not approach closely to a whale shark and DO NOT TOUCH THEM. This can cause them stress or transfer parasites / bacteria onto their skin. Also, make sure to turn the flash off on any cameras you use, as this can be very startling for the animal.
To ensure you snorkel and/or dive responsibly with sharks, you can take the AWARE Shark Conservation course through PADI in collaboration with ProjectAware.
Araujo G, Labaja J, Snow S, Huveneers C & Ponzo A (2020). Changes in diving behaviour and habitat use of provisioned whale sharks: implications for management. Scientific Reports, 10, 16951. Access online.
Penketh L, Schleimer A, Labaja J, Snow S, Ponzo A & Araujo G (2020). Scarring patterns of whale sharks, Rhincodon typus, at a provisioning site in the Philippines. Aquatic Conservation Marine and Freshwater Ecosystems, 1-13.
Schleimer A, Araujo G, Penketh L, Heath A, McCoy E, Labaja J, Lucey A & Ponzo A (2015). Learning from a provisioning site: code of conduct compliance and behaviour of whale sharks in Oslob, Cebu, Philippines. PeerJ, 3:e1452. Access online.
Zieglera JA, Silberg JN, Araujo G, Labaja J, Ponzo A, Rollins R & Dearden P (2018). A guilty pleasure: Tourist perspectives on the ethics of feeding whale sharks in Oslob, Philippines. Tourism Management, 68, 264-274. Access online.