Ecotourism is a promising aspect of the travel industry, where people travel to a destination to see wildlife. It can be an alternative source of income for locals while protecting wildlife for future generations to see. Unfortunately, due to increasing technology and global demand, overfishing is threatening the present and future health of the ocean. This lack of sustainability is causing many species to decline in population, putting them at risk for extinction. Sharks are no exception.
Once universally feared, sharks are a top favorite for divers. In 2011, the Bahamas declared their country as a “shark sanctuary”, prohibiting any means of shark fishing or finning. Populations have since been thriving, resulting in healthier reef ecosystems.
According to a 2014 study published in the Biological Conservation journal, sharks contributed over $110 million to the Bahamian economy in one year alone. In the same study, 43% of all dive tourists reported that they visited the Bahamas primarily to see sharks. Palau was the first established shark sanctuary in 2009 and research shows that due to ecotourism, the value of a single shark in its lifetime is nearly $2 million.
Mexico is an excellent example that ecotourism is not only possible, but thriving.
Every year in July, a special event draws in thousands of people from all over the world: the whale shark aggregation.
The abundance of plankton and fish eggs in the water off Isla Mujeres attracts whale sharks by the hundreds, as well as manta rays and sea turtles.
Isla Mujeres, Mexico
Growing to an average length of thirty feet, the whale shark (Rhincodon typus) is the largest fish in the sea. Their populations are decreasing, however, and they are currently listed as “endangered” on the Red List, assessed by the International Union for the Conservation of Nature (IUCN).
Animal welfare is a critically important aspect of ecotourism, as it reinforces strict guidelines to follow for a respectful encounter. Responsible ecotourism prioritizes the animal’s well-being by preventing any actions that may cause stress to the animal or may disrupt its natural behavior.
List of rules for diving with whale sharks. Isla Mujeres, Mexico
In Mexico, in-water guides are required so as not to overcrowd an animal. Only two people per boat are allowed in the water at a time, ensuring that the whale sharks have a comfortable distance and enough room to continue their migration. Touching, riding, and harassing sharks is absolutely forbidden.
The locals greatly benefit from the whale sharks, as tourists from all over the world come to see them, providing a boost in economy from hotel bookings, restaurants, and souvenirs. More importantly, the locals have realized that through ecotourism, the whale sharks have provided a source of income as an alternative to fishing. Through ecotourism, the dive community is encouraging locals to take tourists out on their boats rather than going fishing, and therefore contributing to the effort of saving shark populations worldwide.
Travel to places that support shark conservation. Do some research to find a reputable dive operator that follows guidelines. Encourage others to raise awareness for ecotourism, because this is a powerful and promising movement that teaches the world that sharks and other marine life are worth more alive, while providing a sustainable alternative income for fishing communities.
It’s a win-win.
Written and photography by @sharkdiver_kaitlyn