The Maldivian Whale Shark Research Program (MWSRP) has been featured on the BBC World News fast:track program, which includes footage of a shark mobbed by dozens of tourists from nearby boats.
The MWSRP was recently the subject of controversy over its use of tagging, a method it claims it ceased in May 2009.
Local divers and safari boats claimed the tagging was scaring the sharks away from their habitat in the Maamigilli area of South Ari atoll.
The researchers however argued that the sheer number of tourists swimming with the sharks, together with congested boat traffic around the animals, was to blame, and provided data from their research that suggested the tagging was unrelated. The Maamagilli area, they noted, was unique in that even sharks who travelled as far as India always returned to the same area.
The controversy culminated when the researchers were threatened at knife point by a staff member from a safari boat.
Shortly afterwards, the Ministry of Fisheries suspended the MWSRP’s research permit in late January pending an investigation into the tagging methods. The researchers have meanwhile indicated their willingness to continue the program without tagging, placing greater emphasis on education and community involvement.
In the BBC program the researchers emphasised their work with local schools and resorts. However during a spotting trip with a film crew and a group of school students, the researchers came across a whale shark surrounded by boats and tourists, which BBC journalist Mike London describes as “an almost textbook example of the kind of encounter the program is keen to stamp out.”
MWRSP researcher Adam Harman comments that “there’s a lot of splashing going on in the water and unfortunately too many boats and too many people for us to go in, so we’re just going to avoid it.”
Concluding the program, London reports that through developing ‘best practice’ proceedures and codes of conduct with the tourist industry, the MWSRP “aims to stop large scale whale shark encounters like the one we’ve just seen, which it fears could eventually scare the sharks away.”
President of the Divers Assocication Maldives (DAM), Zoona Naseem, said the organisation favoured the establishment of proper guidelines for whale shark encounters, adding “it does not matter whether it’s tourists or researchers – no one should be touching the whale sharks.”
Watch the program here: