Whales in the wild: Rare gem amid Thai­land mass tourism

Kuwait Times - - LIFESTYLE -

Pierc­ing the water's sur­face with its al­mond-shaped mouth, a gi­ant Bryde's whale opens wide for one, two, three sec­onds, gulp­ing in an­chovies as a boat­load of awed tourist look on in the Gulf of Thai­land. It's a rare glimpse of marine life in its nat­u­ral habi­tat, in a king­dom over­run with mass tourist at­trac­tions such as aquar­i­ums and dol­phin shows. Once a dream for scuba divers, many of Thai­land's co­ral reefs have been dulled by pol­lu­tion, over-fish­ing and in­creased boat traf­fic, as well as over-en­thu­si­as­tic swim­mers.

But go­ing out to spot Bryde's whales is a rel­a­tively new con­cept. The 15-me­tre (50-foot) long mam­mals flock to the north­ern Gulf wa­ters to feed on an abun­dance of an­chovies dur­ing the Septem­ber to De­cem­ber rainy sea­son. Many tourists come out to catch a glimpse of their unique feed­ing habits-observing the way they keep their mouths agape for sec­onds at a time. "The way they eat is the great­est biome­chan­i­cal event" in the world, said Ji­rayu Ekkul, who takes groups out on his con­verted fish­ing boat to spot the whales just a few hours from the bustling cap­i­tal Bangkok. The de­voted diver and wildlife pho­tog­ra­pher's com­pany Wild En­counter Thai­land is among only a hand­ful of­fer­ing whale watch­ing ex­cur­sions in the Gulf of Thai­land.

Head­ing out on the wa­ters in search of Bryde's whales is a rit­ual he rel­ishes, and one he hopes won't be lost if whale-watch­ing goes the way of so many other mass tourism at­trac­tions in Thai­land. "Com­mer­cial whale-watch­ing is new in Thai­land, there are no reg­u­la­tions yet," he tells AFP on his boat, which can carry about 40 peo­ple. Ekkul in­sists he is care­ful: Last year he took out fewer than 1,000 tourists, he says, and his op­er­a­tion ad­heres to strict in­ter­na­tional guide­lines for this kind of ven­ture. Boats are ex­pected to slow down near the whales, keep a good dis­tance, and to make sure they do not block their paths.

"This boat has the right way to ap­proach them, by slow­ing down the en­gine, slow­ing down the boat speed," said Surasak Thong­sukdee, a whale spe­cial­ist at the Marine and Coastal Re­search Cen­ter (MCRC). Surasak and other re­searchers of­ten join the tourist ex­pe­di­tions, a key op­por­tu­nity to ob­serve the 50 or so Bryde's whales in the Gulf-all of which he knows by name. Whale-watch­ing has be­come a sig­nif­i­cant global in­dus­try. The num­ber of peo­ple tak­ing such trips grew from 4 mil­lion in the 1990s to 13 mil­lion by 2008, ac­cord­ing to the In­ter­na­tional Fund for An­i­mal Wel­fare.

But there are con­cerns about the im­pact it has. In 2014 con­ser­va­tion­ists at the In­ter­na­tional Marine Con­ser­va­tion Congress warned tourist boats may be caus­ing stress and driv­ing whales from their nat­u­ral feed­ing grounds. There is also the risk of death from col­li­sion with the ves­sels. In the Gulf of Thai­land, six whales were found dead this year, which is a sharp spike from the av­er­age one death per an­num. Surasak blames this in­crease on the toxic wa­ters, though lo­cal me­dia also re­ported il­le­gal fish­ing trawlers in the area. "Th­ese whales might be af­fected by pol­lu­tion flow­ing into the water" he said, ad­ding that many dif­fer­ent rivers flow into the Gulf of Thai­land. In Oc­to­ber, dozens of st­ing ray and ra­zor clam beds died off due to pol­lu­tion from one trib­u­tary.

Need for green

The junta-ruled king­dom, whose sput­ter­ing econ­omy re­mains hugely re­liant on tourists to keep afloat, has come un­der fire for let­ting vis­i­tors spoil its nat­u­ral at­trac­tions. Pre­cious co­ral are rou­tinely dam­aged by throngs of scuba-div­ing tourists, who scrape reefs with their fins or hands in their hunt to spot trop­i­cal fish. Some even pose on the co­ral to take un­der­wa­ter self­ies. "The gov­ern­ment is strug­gling to en­force best prac­tice in terms of tourism," said Bri­tish marine bi­ol­o­gist James Har­vey.

He would like to see Thai­land em­brace green tourism, an in­creas­ingly at­trac­tive in­dus­try among eco-minded trav­ellers. In col­lab­o­ra­tion with the UN, he founded Green Fins, a pro­gram that pro­motes sus­tain­able div­ing and snor­kel­ing in Asia to pro­tect co­ral reefs, and would like to see a more eco-friendly ethos ap­plied in Thai­land. "It makes eco­nomic sense to be green now," he said. — AFP

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