Whale sharks are enjoying quite the popularity these days, as sightings of the gentle giants become more common than usual to the casual visitor. In Queensland, Australia, two men were filmed “riding” a whale shark who happened upon their boat while fishing for tuna earlier this month. The small fishing town of Oslob, found in the Philippines, has enjoyed a recent tourism boom after fishermen began hand-feeding a population of whale sharks to the delight of SCUBA divers and tourists visiting the area. Although the filter-feeding creatures are most certainly docile and pose no threat to humans, physical interaction between the whale sharks and people is the source of recent controversy, because of the impacts it has on the animal in the short and long term. So the question is: are the concerns a bit dramatic, or do they have a valid point?
There can be no doubt that coming into such close contact with any marine species is a special experience, especially when they seemingly come to you — and not to eat you! So little is understood about many ocean creatures that an encounter with one is beyond anything you could read in a book. But it is that lack of understanding that can lead to unintentional harm of these creatures. Even if damage is not immediately apparent, there are consequences that have been observed as a result of benign gestures.
Many marine species are covered in a layer of mucus, which is important for several reasons. Primarily, it helps the animal protect itself from bacteria and parasites, who are often unable to permeate the mucus layer, or suffocate trying. Sometimes this mucus layer contains toxins, which act as another critical form of protection from predators. Mucus also assists with respiratory function, whether the species breathes through gills or not, and helps the creature swim efficiently by creating a more streamlined profile. And some species even feed their young by secreting a mucus that is comprised of nutritional proteins and fats. This mucus layer can be easily compromised through human touching and petting, and most certainly by “hitching a ride” on larger species.
The habitual feeding of whale sharks in the Philippines fishing town has come under fire for legitimate reasons. Firstly, the whale sharks have become accustomed to receiving food when the tourist boats come around. The problem is, a whale shark does not possess the cognitive ability to differentiate a tourist boat from a fishing boat, which could very well end the creature’s life if the fishermen see an opportunity.
There is also potential for injury to be inflicted by oars, propellers, or any other object striking the slow-moving animal. And not leastly, the hands of many people — who are unaware of the habits and life of the creatures, as well as the risks associated with physical contact — are grabbing and groping the whale sharks, not to mention those that are jumping in near or on top of them to get a closer look. Not all humans are well-intentioned when it comes to marine life, and creating a sense of trust purely for our own amusement is ethically questionable.
The bottom line is that there is a viable way to enjoy and learn about marine life without subjecting it to unnecessary trauma: look, but don’t touch. Safety should always be our first priority!