On their own, the majestic creatures living in a single Maldivian atoll – a ring-shaped chain of islands formed of coral – account for nearly 3% of global tourism devoted to sharks, a study shows.
The whale shark is the world’s biggest fish, reaching lengths of 40ft (12.2m) or more. Despite its appearance, it is a gentle giant that preys on nothing larger than shrimp-like plankton.
Last year the South Ari atoll Marine Protected Area (Sampa) attracted between 77,000 and 78,000 tourists on whale shark excursions, bringing in a direct income of £5.6 million to operators.
Co-author Fernando Cagua, from the Maldives Whale Shark Research Programme (MWSRP), said: “There are still many mysteries about these whale sharks – we don’t know why they come here or for how long they stay – but bringing the money issue to the table is an important step towards ensuring their conservation.”
Despite being the most popular place to view whale sharks in the Maldives, the atoll is currently unprotected by a coherent management plan.
Writing in the journal PeerJ, the researchers said proper regulation would prevent the sharks becoming stressed by too much attention and leaving the region.
Between 18 and 29 whale sharks are thought to populate the Sampa area, the largest protected area in the Maldives, at any one time. But an accepted management plan was not agreed when it was designated in 2009. New talks between local communities and tourism industry representatives are now under way.
Richard Rees, director of the MWSRP, said: “In a sense the whale sharks here are perfect for wildlife tourism. They are the largest shark in the world and the slow-moving, shallow-swimming behaviour they exhibit in Sampa waters makes them accessible not just to scuba divers but also to snorkel excursions.
“This opens up an incredible wildlife experience to just about everyone, which of course brings with it a degree of risk in terms of the welfare of both the sharks and the tourists.
“The encouraging thing is that everyone in the industry we talk to agrees these risks need to be managed and the local communities are receptive to participating in the management of the area.”