by Isabelle Ng
Western Australia’s Ningaloo Marine Park (NMP) is one of the few locations in the world where whale sharks are known to aggregate, which makes it a popular destination for nature-seeking tourists. Tourism levels are high between March and July, when whale sharks aggregate in high nutrient waters. While tourism may benefit from these aggregations, the whale shark is threatened and listed as Vulnerable by the IUCN, most likely a result of human impacts such as tourism. The whale shark tourism industry is managed by the Department of Parks and Wildlife under a species and management program, which is supposed to exercise “sustainable best practices” through a code of conduct.
Over a two-year period, researchers conducted aerial surveys to evaluate the impact of tourism vessels and snorkelers on whale shark movements. Previous studies on the whale shark tourism industry in the NMP were conducted in water, which may have affected the whale sharks’ behavior at the time of the study.
This study revealed that the close proximity of vessels and snorkelers to whale sharks caused a higher frequency of directional movement, with twice as many changes in direction. Whale sharks dive and resurface to regulate their internal temperature, which means tourist and vessel presence could potentially disrupt this vital process. Moreover, whale sharks may become habituated to humans and vessels, putting the already vulnerable species at a greater risk. There is also the danger of physical collisions between whale sharks and vessels.
While the implications of the whale shark tourism industry are now known, the costs have yet to be measured. Other factors such as resultant noise from vessels and tourists should also be considered in future research. However, management decisions and changes to the NMP program’s code of conduct can now be made with the consideration of these findings.
When tourism and nature are incorporated together, it is often found that there are controversies and environmental implications. Human related impacts such as the vessel movement are observed to be the main threat to whale sharks in Western Australia. It is important to understand the effects of such disturbances, evaluate the current policies in place and make the necessary changes to minimize these threats.
Raudino H, Rob D, Barnes P, Mau R, Wilson E, Gardner S, Waples K (2016) Whale shark behavioural responses to tourism interactions in Ningaloo Marine Park and implications for future management. Conservation Science Western Australia 10: 2 [online].