Tourism threatens to overwhelm mantas and whale sharks of Hanifaru Bay

In most places a 260 percent increase in tourist arrivals would be a cause for celebration. Not so for Hanifaru Bay.

Located off the uninhabited island of Hanifaru in Baa Atoll, the bay is a small enclosed reef the size of a football field. But what makes Hanifaru Bay unique and attracts tourists is the phenomena that occurs during the south west monsoon from May to November.

Interplay between the lunar tide and the south west monsoon enables build up of a massive concentration of plankton, which in turn attracts hundreds of huge manta rays and gigantic whale sharks. It’s usual to see up to 200 manta rays in a feeding frenzy, accompanied by whale sharks. The bay is one of the two sites in Maldives which acts as a cleaning station as well as feeding site for whale sharks.

Hanifaru Bay was declared a Marine Protected site last year by the government, in recognition of its importance in the ecosystem. When the bay was featured in National Geographic magazine last year, and a BBC Natural World documentary this year, the site’s fame spread all over the world.

Price of fame

“Sometimes we see up to 14 boats crammed into that little space,” says Mohamed Fathuhy, island chief of nearby Dharavandhoo.

He rues the fact that sometimes snorkelers and divers in the bay outnumber the animals.

Regulations announced by the Ministry of Environment on making the bay an MPA say that only five boats can engage in the area at any given time. It also limits the number of swimmers or divers to 80 at any one time.

However Fathuhy says  some visitors to try and touch the animals. Safari boats sometimes take money from tourists saying there is a charge for snorkeling in the area. And overcrowding is so bad that crews of visiting safari boats and others had almost come to blows over access.

Ahmed Sameer, general secretary of Youth Association of Kamadhoo, another island nearby, says his co-islanders share the concern: “We are worried that if this goes on, the animals might stop coming and the place might be destroyed.”

Asked why the interest in Hanifaru Bay, Sameer says that Kamadhoo islanders have always been a very eco-conscious people.

“Every household in the island recently signed a pact to not harvest turtle eggs or take turtles, and participate in the turtle conservation project by Four Seasons,” he explains.

Concerned and galvanised into action by the efforts of Seamarc, an environmental consultancy firm, and Four Seasons Landaa Giraavaru, Fathuhy and Sameer is a part of a delegation that visited the Environment Ministry yesterday to share their concern and to suggest co-management of the site.

Cries of a community

The delegation consisted of representatives from the islands of Dhonfanu,Dharavandhoo,Thulhadhoo and Kamadhoo. Province minister Ali Niyaz, Dhonfanu Councillor, Director General of Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) and Mohamed Zuhair, Mari Saleem of SEAMARC, Guy Stevens of Maldives Manta Ray Project and Executive members of Liveaboard Association Shaheena Ali and Fayaz Ismail attended the meeting alongside Minister of Environment Mohamed Aslam and Deputy Minister Mohamed Shareef.

Marie a passionate advocate of co management said “Baa atoll community would like to work with the government to help implement the regulations in place.”

“A cross section of the people in the atoll as well as stakeholders in the tourism industry, support the initiative to develop and manage Hanifaru Bay sustainable.”

The figures in Fathuhy’s presentation was impressive.

“Manta ray tourism generates an estimated US$8.1 million annually,” Fathuhy explained. Hanifaru Bay alone is estimated to generate US$ 500,000 in direct revenue for Maldivian economy this year.

A discussion ensued over wheather Baa Atoll could retain the revenues and the danger of the animals deserting the area if things continued as they were.

Some alterations to the existing regulations were proposed such as penalties for those who don’t adhere to regulations: having a fine for those coming into contact with the animals, and banning speedboats and boats with un-protected outboard engines, as well as implementing a compulsory certification system for guides and boat captains working there, and banning scuba diving in the vicinity.

Way forward

With Minister Aslam admitting that central government had difficulties in managing the MPA as well as other protected dive sites, the question arose over how best to go about it.

The lack of  wardens or an effective system of policing the area is an acute problem in Maldives concerning MPA’s.

Hence the  group discussed ways of managing the site, government or EPA managing it, going for a business model or a community based one.

The idea of forming a corporative found the most supporters with Aslam saying that “it’s a structured way of doing it as the laws are also already in place.”

Ismail and Shaheena from Liveaboard association were adamant that government had to play a major role in managing the site.

Shaheena pointed out that it would be unfair if any group got ownership of the place. “The process can’t be too democratic.”

“Tourists that hire speedboats from Male and go to that area will be disappointed if they can’t have access to the area.”

The delegation from Baa Atoll went back to their respective communities at the behest of Aslam to draw and propose a practical plan to manage the area.

While Baa Atoll community and the government try and figure out the best way to manage the area, the future of Hanifaru Bay hangs in balance along with its seasonal inhabitants.


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.