Whale Sharks Can Feed Themselves
Whale sharks (known locally as the butanding) are migratory, but they gather in places where food can be found—which is why they shouldn't be fed by humans.
Whale sharks are huge and carnivorous but, as National Geographic Channel describes, docile. They might even be okay with fellow swimmers “hitching a ride.” Perhaps, this docility is what prompted tour programs with whale sharks to emerge.
Marine conservationists caution against irresponsible tour programs that interfere with the whale sharks’ instincts. This primarily involves feeding whale sharks to increase their “natural” presence in a place for the purpose of tourism. Whale sharks are migratory; this is why responsible tour operators do not and cannot promise sightings.
The whale shark is also an endangered species because, despite the fact that it is technically the biggest fish in the ocean, humans remain its predator. Their population declines—they continue to be poached even in the Philippines—and challenges in monitoring and enforcement continue. The International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN) has reported that the number of whale sharks from the Indo-Pacific region (which includes the Philippines) declined about 63 percent in the last 75 years.
What’s the debate circling whale shark tourism?
The ethics of feeding whale sharks remain heavily controversial. A recent report from LAMAVE shows that despite awareness regarding the harm it causes the whale sharks, many tourists still support this practice, or at least show their support online. For these people, the economic impact, human entertainment, and considerations for animal welfare are enough to support the tours, chalking it up as a “guilty pleasure.”
Oslob in Cebu, for example, has become one of the most popular places for whale shark tours in the Philippines since its program was established seven years ago. This persists even though the whale sharks are known to be fed by handlers to keep them returning to the tour site, making these docile creatures dependent on human interaction.
But luring whale sharks using food also has deeper ecological implications.
According to LAMAVE, the Philippines hosts the third largest whale shark population in the world and the biggest in Southeast Asia, with 1000 sharks tagged as of 2016. In a 2017 study published by the Royal Society Open Science Journal, LAMAVE looked at the presence and behavior of Oslob’s young whale sharks: Their findings reflected that 4% of sharks became “year-round residents.” Since 2014, the number of sharks visiting the feeding area weekly also increased, with some of these animals even prolonging their seasonal stays.
Feeding them means that their hunting and foraging skills are affected, which decreases their survival rate in the wild.
Learning from Donsol, the Whale Shark Capital of the World
There are still places that practice the appropriate measures to protect these endangered species while allowing human presence. In Donsol, Sorsogon, for example, there is a whale shark program sponsored by the World Wide Fund (WWF). Apart from this conservation program, the center also produces research about these creatures so that we can learn how to better protect them.
They have Butanding Interaction Officers (BIOs), who educate the guests to ensure both their safety and the whale sharks’—these people also serve as ambassadors to the conservation and proper treatment of these creatures. Their ecotourism has pushed Donsol to become a 1st class municipality, as the residents benefit from this kind of mindful tourism.
Donsol and Oslob are only two such places in the Philippines that practice whale shark tourism, and which come from two ends of the spectrum. There are many others. The bottomline? In these circumstances, it pays to be cautious and to do your research—avoid irresponsible tours. A good rule of thumb is to be wary of any tour operator that can promise for certain a whale shark sighting, as this can be a sign of the animal's dependent relationship with the operator.