To Feed or Not to Feed?
awhalesharkinthe wayofmywhaleshark. That’s not a thought one has often in one’s lifetime. But here I am, off the coast of remote Indonesian Borneo, photographing the world’s largest fish, when another one comes barrelling through, spoiling my photo and nearly causing me to drop my (incredibly pricey) underwater camera and lighting set up.
I steady myself and get back to the matter at hand of taking a split-level shot of a rather surreal scene: a whale shark – hanging vertically in the water column – having bait poured into its mouth by fishermen off the side of a floating platform, known as a bagan.
On and beneath the surface, all parties appear to be having (ahem) a whale of a time; four gigantic sharks are getting a good feed, the fishermen are making some money, and we’re gathering top-drawer imagery for our
new series, Indonesiafrombelow. It’s a win-win-win situation. Right?
If only it were that simple. Whether or not whale sharks should be handfed for tourism is a highly debated subject amongst scientists and conservationists. Some view it as integral to the sharks’ survival. Others want the feeding to stop, claiming it results in disfigured, overfed, lazy sharks that will struggle to reproduce.
Let’s start with the pros. Globally, whale shark tourism is valued in excess of USD50 million per annum, with the feeding hot spots being Oslob in the Philippines, and Gorontalo and Cenderawasih in Indonesia. As a result of the industry, jobs are created, lodging and restaurants spring up, and infrastructure is improved.
Dr Mark Meekan, Principal Research Scientist at the Australian Institute of Marine Science, believes the impact on the people of Oslob – perhaps the bestknown shark-feeding destination – has been overwhelmingly positive. “The industry has changed the fishermen’s lives for the better here. They’re eating three meals a day and can afford to send their children to school,” he says.
It’s not just the community that benefits. In an era of diminishing marine resources, near-guaranteed whale shark sightings are a huge draw for tourists. They leave having had intimate encounters with gigantic animals. The photos they post on social media help to dispel myths that sharks are bloodthirsty man-eaters: Iswamwitha10-metresharkand survived!here’saselfietoproveit…
Whale sharks could do with all the positive PR and help they can get right now. On the high seas, they are the victims of by-catch, caught in nets large enough to ensnare a dozen Boeing 747s. Then, there’s the value of their fins, which can command high prices as display items in Hong Kong. Due to these threats, last year the whale sharks’ conservation status was upgraded from “vulnerable” to “endangered” on the IUCN Red List of Threatened Species.
Whale sharks are endangered because of us; their populations worldwide have more than halved because of us. Therefore, it’s reasonable to assume that humans can provide the solutions.
Studies of 158 whale sharks in Oslob by LAMAVE between 2012 and 2013 highlighted that residency time for hand-fed whale sharks was 44.9 days, compared to 22.4 for non-provisioned individuals. Twelve individuals were seen on at least 50 percent of observation days. The paper concludes: “Extended residency and differences in lagged identification rates suggest behavioural modification on provisioned individuals, underlying the necessity for proper management of this tourism activity.”
What’s clear is that feeding makes the sharks stay in one place longer. What’s not clear is the impact this has on the sharks. For Dr Meekan, having “resident” sharks isn’t a problem. “Anyway, even if some sharks are lost to the population forever, that would be a small price to pay for the conservation of the entire species,” he says, whilst referring to these sharks as “global ambassadors”.
Further research of this “ecotourist” activity is currently underway in Cenderawasih Bay, where dozens of sharks have been deployed with custom-made satellite tags. Every day, scientists are gathering vital insights into the lives of these mysterious animals. Once we understand them, management strategies can be put in place to ensure all parties benefit: the community, tourists, and sharks.
“Animal health and life history data collected via this project will support
AARON “BERTIE” GEKOSKI is an environmental photojournalist and presenter of shows on www.scubazoo.tv. Whale shark feeding in Derawan will be featured in the upcoming series, Indonesiafrombelow.
JASON ISLEY trained as an underwater cameraman in Australia before moving to Borneo, where he co-founded Scubazoo. He has filmed and photographed all over the world, producing content for Disney IMAX and BBC Series. He has also published his work in several books under the Scubazoo brand.