Asmall group of whale sharks in the waters of a single atoll in the Maldives accounts for nearly 3 percent of global tourism devoted to sharks. Last year the Marine Protected Area (Sampa) in the South Ari atoll attracted between 77,000 and 78,000 tourists on whale shark excursions, bringing in a direct income of £5.6 million to the operators. At any one time, up to 29 whale sharks are thought to populate the Sampa area, the largest protected area in the Maldives.
The whale shark is the world's biggest fish, reaching lengths of 40ft or more. However, it is a gentle giant that preys on nothing larger than shrimplike plankton.