Tourists attempting to ride whale sharks in South Ari Atoll

Excessive human interaction with whale sharks in South Ari Atoll could eventually lead to the species leaving the area permanently, the Maldives Whale Shark Research Project (MWSRP) has warned.

“We have reports of tourists touching and even attempting to ride the sharks,” said Adam Harman from the MWSRP.

In June last year the southern tip of the Ari Atoll region, a year long whale shark aggregation site, was declared a marine protected area (MPA). But recently there has been a large increase in the number of tourists visiting the area.

“The whale sharks have attracted more and more tourists to the area. Sometimes there are 25 boats and over 100 tourists swimming around one shark,” Harman said.

Interaction guidelines were implemented to protect whale sharks in 2008. According to these guidelines, only 12-13 swimmers from one boat are allowed around a shark at any given time, and even then there is to be no contact with the animals. However these guidelines are difficult to monitor since they are self regulated.

According to MWSRP, once a shark is spotted all the boats in the area converge around the shark, ‘caging’ it in. This endangers the animal in many ways and there is a huge possibility of propeller damage.

“If this keeps up we risk losing the sharks. They will move onto other preferential habitats” warned Harman.

“Currently we are getting three sightings a day. We used to have 39 encounters in the same three day period.

“Its hard to say what could happen, but if things don’t change by this time next year, the number of sharks in this area could go down.”

The threat of losing the whale sharks is very real, Harman emphasised. Similar cases have been recorded in Mexico and South Africa, where whale sharks have been known to leave their habitats.

This is not the first incident in South Ari Atoll where marine life have left to seek other preferential habitats. South Ari Atoll Madivaru, ‘Manta point’, was once a popularsite for manta rays.

“At one time you could spot almost 50. Today however, spotting even one is considered lucky,” Harman said.

Tourists converge on a whale shark in a flurry of flippers
Tourists converge on a whale shark in a flurry of flippers

Violent clashes

The clash of ideas has led to hostile confrontations between operators and researchers. In one incident a knife was allegedly used by safari operators to threaten researchers.

Director of the Environmental Protection Agency, Ibrahim Naeem, confirmed the government had received reports of such confrontations.

“We have urged the researchers and operators to stay out of each others’ way,” he said. “We do get many complaints about people interfering with whale sharks, but since the law doesn’t say its illegal, people still do it,” he continued.

“Divers and safari operators argue that 12 swimmers per whale is not enough, while scientists say that more than 12 poses a risk to the animals. We are having talks with the people involved in the industry and are in the process of reviewing the guidelines.”

The MWSRP have been working closely with the evironment, fisheries and tourism ministries to find a solution to the problem.

Minister of Tourism Dr Ali Sawad said ” We have been working in coordination with the environment ministry, and we are looking for ways to increase awareness and work more closely with divers associations and safari operators.”

Images provided by MWSRP.


24 thoughts on “Tourists attempting to ride whale sharks in South Ari Atoll”

  1. Obviously the conflict between the researchers and the industry are coming to a head and something needs to be done. While the researchers blame the industry the industry is also right to blame the researchers actions of tagging on the loss of sightings. It's amazing that the researchers don't even know that the whale shark encounter guide has not been implemented. It has only gone through 2 consultations and was never implemented. My question is....has their research helped the Maldives at all? If not, why are we letting them do more research here knowing that their method of tagging can affect the animals? Apparently they themselves say on their website that tagging whalesharks is like drinking coffee on a rollercoaster. We really need to think twice about this!

  2. There are two sides to this story:

  3. Awareness among divers to be increased in a positive manner. Resorts/Dive schools must take initiative in protection than commercial benefits.

  4. Sponsor a Whale Shark this Christmas

    "122 Whale Sharks currently in the database, there are also a small number of whale sharks without names at present, allowing sponsors to give them whatever name they desire....

    Sponsors will have exclusive access to information regarding their whale shark including when and where they have been sighted and how much they have grown"

    This mean 122 whale sharks are tagged....Is this a research or a business in the name of conservation. They want tag more...

  5. Dear Editor
    Its sad to see that on such critical issues that Minivan News is refraining from telling both sides of the story.Should you not have got word from the Divers Association or commercial Divers or Safari boat owners??? While media plays such an important role in dissemination of information and making aware,such stories which reflect one ideology of such a intrinsic subject can be damaging in so many ways.For this article alone seems to have created a stir that could have been avoided.The Tagging of sharks is important but the tagging of sharks in a "Zoo" concept rather than tagging them int he "Wild" does seem bit concerning.Can this into be a side that can be looked into? I believe you should now get the other side of the story.Ask questions like why photographic monitoring is not enough...and why they cannot be tagged at agreed different times to when tourists arrive...and why there are no Maldivians involved in the research as of the regulations of the country and what are the findings of the research so far and what is this third tag that is attached to 3meter line that uses GPRS to pinpoint and locate a Shark used for??? Why is Conrad Maldives so interested in financing this project??? I mean of course if this was a press statement of someone this is fine.Just my views.thank you

  6. Its sad that when we are publishing such articles we are not looking at both sides of the story.
    The simple truth is - due to this research team who is not monitored by any government authorities are torturing the whale sharks and driving them away from their natural habitat.
    No doubt - as they say tagging is like drinking a coffee on a roller coaster - how many times did these guys missed to hit the right target?
    Maamigili area has been initially found by us locals more than 20-25 years back - no outside research teams had done any work to find these areas.
    If they are doing research - go to somewhere else and find new area's for the whale sharks- u don't go to the zoo to do research!!!.... Do some work and find it from the wild and then say that they have done something.

    Looking at the background of the so called research team - we hear rumors stating that they have been driven away from Australia for not respecting the Australian guidelines and law - government should have checked their background before such an opportunity is given.

    For us Maldivians - tourism is our main income - we promise our guest to show the beauty of the Maldives - so we have done and will be doing everything to protect the WHALE SHARKS.

    If the tagging is not stopped right now - they will have to face the consequence.

  7. NOTE - the whale shark photo they have been using on the website - with the broken fin - is NOT an accident from a boat propeller - it looks more like a clean cut to get a DNA sample!!!!

  8. Author has missed to cover both sides to the story i am confident that Divers Association of Maldives would have responded to any questions that you might have had regarding the issue before posting this article.
    There's more to this just divers riding on whale sharks, a lot divers and snorkelers cant stand it when a boat turns up in the middle of a watch and jump and harpoon tag the sharks that the others where watching and under wht law or regulation or license are these people tagging sharks living in the Maldives.
    Dear Mazin Rafeeg please double check on this issue check both sides and post it here

  9. I find it very sad that the work of this charity can be so misunderstood by so many. Many of the comments above are written intellegently and eloquently, and yet some of the content is mere supposition and lies.

    The MWSRP does not tag during peak tourist season, and as such has not tagged at all in this current period (decemeber-present). The number of sharks who have been tagged is minimal, it is true that some 130 sharks are on the database, but most are identified through photo analysis, and the vast majority of the shakrs are not tagged.
    Even those sharks that are tagged return time and time again to South Ari. If the tags bother the sharks then why do they return with such regularity? World experts on the subject of tagging have pioneered this technology... is there ANY evidence or expertise offered from those people above who would happily blame the research rather than look at the facts.

    As for the idea that the shark pictured with a severed fin had anything to do with the MWSRP is rediculous. They work to protect the species and engage the community. they recieve no money for any of their work, and in fact spend their own money to be here.

    As for the link to australia, it is complete nonsense. the team has never conducted research in australia, and certainly has never been banned by the government. Is it acceptable for people to just write lies?

    We all have responsibilty to ensure the survival of the species in south ari; it is not about blame but solutions and communication. we all want the same thing, and surely the only way achieve this is to sit down and have open discusion between all parties.

  10. 'Know that tagging effects these animals', ' Drinking coffee on a roller coaster'???? Where is it that poeple get this stuff???!!!/??
    Why not speak with researchers and find out what they are doing!!! They are here to hlep Maldives!!!

  11. The researchers are doing great work!!! They are in Maldives to help Maldives and never tag whale sharks when tourists are in water. I have met these guys couple times and we need them here so we can know more about whale sharks.

  12. What is everyone's problems? Whale shark research is improtnat. If it dos not happen how can we prtect!? Everyone needs to work togehter and take responsibly for own actions.
    Talk to researchers then you will know what they do! They take small skin sampls, less than 2mm. Not cut big piece of shark.
    They are the ones who made South Ari protected with their work.

  13. I am quite saddened by what I am redaing. As a Maldivian I am proud of this country as an engineer I am applaed at the attitude of the people. MWSRP is a research organization and they do not have commercial impertaives but the tour operators do and that is the problem. I understand they have to make a living but they also need to understand that whale shark or human, no one likes to be hounded and hemmed in. People just leave but when the whalesharks leave they will not come back. Like overfishing, stressing the whale sharks will just result in an empty ocean bereft of whalesharks. Logically, the government must enforce conservation rules or there will be nothing to conserve and the Maldives will lose. Just like conserving the reefs you have to conserve the stars as well, in this case the whaleshark. These wild accusations do not make sense and they only seem to serve interests that want to make money, regradless of the long term costs.

  14. Interaction guidelines are not much use if no one is following them. No one will follow them if they are not enforced. South Ari Atoll is an asset for the Mldivian economy. Like any asset, it needs to be protected. Commercial interests always want more, researchers always want less. What is being lost is what the sharks want and need. You must limit the circus around the sharks or else the asset will be depleted as the whalesharks move on. If you are going to protect the asset then protect it or else expect it to dissappear in a few years.

  15. The article and comments are a big shame. I have been lucky to meet the MWSRP, they give a talk on the researches they are doing. They also are giving the talks to the local schools and is taking the local school children to see the wale sharks.
    The MWSRP are not tagging the wale sharks this year and have only tagged very few in the last years who they see again many times.
    The MWSRP are finding good research and interesting infomrations about the wale sharks, they not making money for the researches they are doing, they are trying to help the wale sharks and all the poeples who are needing them for the income.
    It is very sad the MWSRP are attacked by cowboy safaris, the maldives is not a place for this violence and we should not attack these peoples but help them!
    The resort, safari, diving and the MWSRP should all meet together, it is the same thing they a re all wanting.

  16. I have been taken to Maamigili lot of times by MWSRP to see sharks. They give us education about sharks, the new protected area. They here to help maldives!

  17. I have met the MWSRP team and it is just rediculous to write that they are harming the sharks. As a maldivian i am happy to see that there are people helping the whale sharks and trying to learn about this wonderful creature. The group are willing to share ALL of their findings to whoever asks. Maybe some of the above should speak with the team and find out properly the good work they are doing, making no money for themselves. I have met many tourists who have also met the MWSRP team and all of them are so happy to be involved and learn about the research they are doing. The MWSRP are always happy to give the talks about the Whale sharks and meet tourists and answer all the questions.
    I think we should show support for the MWSRP group and encourage them.

  18. MWSRP introduced me to whale shark, it was best experience of my life, I am much greatful to them for this honor. In water, they were much respectful to whale sharks. They tell us we must be respectful too. I felt much pride, that this amazing creature roams my home. Please do not speek of MWSRP in bad way as they really care about the whale sharks and our home.

  19. Fenfulhangi, maybe it is you who needs to be speaking with both sides!?! Then you will understand when tagging is done and why it is needed (something which is obvious to anyone with a brain). And a 3metre GPRS tag? Are you sure...Where do you get this informtion? A start would be to visit their website go to and click on tagging. It's a pretty obvious step when you think about it!?!!!!

  20. Do you all realise that these people from the MWSRP come here to help maldives? They come here with their money to help Maldives. All mebers are volunteer. It seems like safari boat people are greedy and think that they take money from them. Get real!

  21. My daughter has worked with MWSRP so I know a little bit about their operation. They are focused on conserving, ie saving, the whalesharks. They have seen and heard, about other locations where the habitat was ravaged by mismanagement and they do not want this to happen here. From what I have read commercial interests are making a strong effort to eliminate any rules on their use of the water. Like any roadway, if you don't have rules you have chaos. In the US rules for managing marine habitats are strictly enforced and the marine areas are doing OK if not flourishing. The Maldives is a small country and tourism is their primary source of income. Preserving these habitats should be a priority for the government and seafolk alike as so many jobs depend on it. In protected areas, tourists do understand that you have to keep your distance for the protection of the animals. Without scientific research you will never know what is happening until it is too late. If I was the Madivian minister I would enforce the law rigorously and eventually the hue and cry will die down. Commerce is important but you have to take care of the product or else the commercial value will vanish.

  22. the guys from the mwsrp are great guys it would be in the interest of all liveaboard operators who use maamigili as a selling point for their boats, get these guys on the boat and have a chat amongst yourselves and the guests, these guys stand for conservation and also the sustainability of your business. is what we are doing now sustainable i think not. it is the liveaboards and the resort boats who are scaring off the whalesharks by jumping on top of them and allowing the guests to molest these animals. i have seen boat strike injuries to the animals first hand we are getting just too close to these animals and molesting them. get some professional advice on how to interact, get the mwsrp on board as we do and listen to the real truth have a look at the facts and the statistics and only then can you judge. not many sharks have been tagged and the ones that have show up on the same day, same month same year. the shark population is not dwindling they are just trying to get away from the tourists simple hard fact.

  23. shocking, we have been wtching and swimming with the whalesharks for years.
    12 divers for a whaleshark who ever said that is wrong, "anything more than 12 ppl will harm them" you must be kidding. because i personaly have been watching them for years and we identify these boys. jus because they are white they not right.get real my friends

  24. Our government should get its act together and put in more strict regulations for both sides: the tour operators and divers as well as the reserachers.
    If fair and sound regulations are in place and all stakeholders are held accountable for their actions then we will have none of this madness!
    But still, shame on those of you who are inciting generalised hateful comments here!


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