Whale sharks are currently listed as endangered by the International Union for Conservation of nature (IUCN). According to the IUCN, whale sharks are caught by fisherman either intentionally or as by-catch. However, whale sharks may be worth much more alive, and whale shark tourism has been rapidly increasing.
Ecotourism can help protect whale sharks, by creating economic value that relies on healthy shark populations. However there are still issues with whale shark tourism, such as overcrowding of sharks, alteration of shark behaviors, and boat strikes.
While we were in Mexico, we had the chance to experience a whale shark tour and we were glad that part of our fees help support conservation. Ramon, our local whale shark tour operator, clearly explained the rules and the reasons for them. Rules included staying with the guide while in the water and 6 ft away from whale sharks, as well as only using sunscreen after already having swam in the water. If the whale sharks are disturbed by tourists at the surface, they may swim deeper, which potentially may be impacting the type or quality of food they are obtaining while filter feeding.
Here's more of Ramon had to say about our whale shark ecotourism questions:
1. Tell us about yourself and your work, how long have you been doing this, how did you get started and how has it changed since you started?
My name is Ramon, Ramon Guerrero. Thank you for allowing me to be [here] ok. I started to be related with the ocean at a very early age- 4 years old. My parents moved from Mexico city when I was 2 years old and then I met the ocean. But I remember when I was 4 years old it was very hard to take me out of the water, I screamed wildly and savagely at 8 pm you know my parents had to wait until I agreed to get out of the water. I was fascinated you know by the feeling of being in the water, so by the age 10 I was using already a pole spear, a pole spear, and I was catching fish because my passion for the ocean came together with the hunting instinct that is innate in humans, we use to be fisherman, but before that we were hunters you know. I mean I am talking about human beings and the instinct is there and I have seen children, all people, being so happy just having the line or the rope fishing so the instinct is still in there you know. Hunting, we don’t’ hunt anymore like humanity, because our awareness of no killing but the instinct is there, its genetic. Ok, so, [in the next few years], I became an expert on free diving and spearfishing. I had excellent teachers, two of them the best in my country Mr. Domingo Fernandez and my last teacher Samuel Salazar. Both of them incredible people, Samuel was probably a 7 minute breath holder and such a knowledgeable person about fish habitats, ocean, weather, everything, what a man, humble person and a very good singer hahaha. So at the age of 28 I left my state and I came to the Caribbean, the Mexican Caribbean and I was shaken by the sight of so much fish around here, so much beauty, like the visibility of 100 ft.
I met my dreams here, why I say I met my dream because from probably 4 years old to 12 I had many dreams. I had dreams with the ocean and most of my dreams came true, the same thing I dream-ship wreaks, fish schools, it became true. Several of them are very, very interesting, but because of the time I’m just going share a little bit of my dream of the shiny mirrors. Shiny mirrors dream was very interesting for me, I used to fly in my dream above the sea, like 3 ft above the sea, it was such a flat ocean day that the reflection of the sky, gray sky, kind of cloudy, makes the ocean to looks also grey, we call it white ocean day, we [as in] the commercial fisherman. So in my dream it was a white ocean day, the ocean was super flat and I used to because now I am a grown seamen, I know I was flying because I was flying, there was no boat there was no plane but I was flying in my dream because I dream it so many times I knew that was the shiny mirrors dream. As soon as I started taking awareness of my dream within the dream I started seeing the reflection far away, some reflection. I knew the emotion, the feeling of being close to the shiny mirrors was going to invade me. When I got closer, when I got above the shiny mirrors they were black and rounded. In 1987 that dream became true- I found the whale sharks, [motions rounded shape] dorsal fin of the whale shark. I started at that time thinking about how to protect the whale shark because I knew 1500 whale sharks together are going to get the attention of many people, scientists, travel agencies, people would want probably to do something with tourists you know. I started thinking, but also I started dreaming again. My dreams about how to protect the whale shark. In 2004, I showed the world, the first international workshop in Holbox, I showed the world the biggest aggregation of whale sharks in the world. The scientists didn’t believe the numbers of shark that could be out there because in the past the scientists used to say the whale shark were lonely creatures. Even Jacques Cousteau said that, he was here in 1976 but he was in winter time so he never realized that he was so close to the biggest aggregation. It could [have been] a good chance for the whale sharks to be protected in a better way than what we are doing now. We have rules we have some people that show respect to the whale shark, still there are many tour operators doing the wrong thing, same the tourists. Cheap tourists don’t show respect almost to nothing, not to people, not to nature, not to the whale shark you know. I started becoming famous because after the international workshop I met famous people, Brad Norman from Australia, Sylvia Earle from the United States, Rachel Graham from England, she was the first researcher finding that whale sharks feed on fish eggs too, not only plankton, krill, copepods, but fish eggs. In Belize? There are three spawning, cubera snapper? dog snapper, bonita, that the scientists call little tuni, but fisherman we call bonita fish. Ok? So here in the Mexican Caribbean, near Isla Mujeres, within 25 miles you know, in a very wide area, that could be 110 square miles, [this] phenomenon happens. Thousands of little tuni fish release eggs, millions, billions of fish eggs are released to the water, fertilized by the males, and then the whale shark feeds on the fertilized fish egg. The whale shark don’t show any interest on the other fish eggs. How we know that? Very easy, fertilized eggs float, the rest we can see from the surface to 60 ft down, you can see the rest of the fish eggs, but the whale sharks will feed only at the surface. In Belize, the phenomenon with cubera snapper is quite different, whale sharks feed below the surface like 60-70 ft. There the whale shark dives down and feeds on fish eggs below the surface, but here it happens on the surface, fertilized fish eggs. If you think about the wisdom of nature, you know, you will find always whale sharks make the balance, keeping the fish population in balance. If whale sharks don’t feed on the fish eggs, the little tuni fish population will grow big and kill the other fish. So that’s the purpose of the whale sharks in this area. Besides that, there are facts that show that whale sharks mate here, you know they are not mammals they don’t’ really mate, but it is very similar to [mating]. You are a marine biologist, you know about claspers, they are on all the males of rays, manta rays, and sharks. These appendages, the claspers, they are sperm sacs and they introduce them into females. Females of the whale sharks are very interesting subjects, why? Because they can take as much as they want from the male. Depending on the size of the male, she can take the whole clasper from a big male if she is a huge mature female, if she is a young female, she will take half of the clasper. In the beginning of the season, you see the full length of the claspers on the males, but In the middle of the season or a month later, you see parts, you know, even small claspers, and bleeding like it was the night before probably they mated, and in the morning you see a perfect cut, like someone using a knife. Very interesting. It has been said that the female found in the Gulf of Mexico had 300 eggs in her inside, and they were 3 different ages of babies. Probably you already know the whale sharks [babies] are born alive, they don’t like eggs, but they grow in the shark. These babies were 3 different ages, that makes it even more interesting, the whale sharks. Also their traveling is incredible, you google largest assembly of whale sharks ever recorded, you will find a very nice article, but at the end of this article you will find PLOS One link, [which is] a scientific magazine and the facts are there. Whale sharks sink, dive down to 1500 m, they have the satellite transmitter, these whale sharks are going to 1500m to the coldest deep water, scientists guess that this [behavior] was feeding, seeking for food. There’s other tracked whale sharks, in 2008, they said in September 2008, this female left this area in September, this female emerged near Cape Verde, Africa, on April of 2009, 7 months [of] travel, wow they are travel travelers. So, you find them all around the world, but only in the warm water area, you never find them in the cold water, the whale sharks. Scientists say there are no whale sharks in the Indian ocean, but everywhere else. Now they have seen more of them in Florida and the vicinity
2.HOw do you and your team members educate people about whale sharks and how to protect them?
I would like to do real education, real education should use slideshows, images, and at least 3 hours of information for the person, not only about the rules, about the nature of the whale shark and its relation with nature and other creatures of the ocean and why we need everything. Nothing is separated, if you for example observe the jungle. You know in the jungle, wild hogs, they are very important for the ecosystem, why? They keep the water spots alive [by digging out water spots], if you kill the hog, no more water spot, no more frogs, no more plants around. You kill the ecosystem by killing a very important individual there, so whale sharks have a function on the earth, not only in this ocean. If we don’t’ take care of them we are going to pay for the consequence. And the consequence that we are living now because warming, plastic, and everything, is too much already. This is the only time we can stop many things by taking action, if we don’t do that, if our children don’t get information in this time, wow, we could starve you know, we could starve. The next food might come from the ocean you know, by farming, by doing the right thing. But we must watch farming [also], why? Because industrial food [particularly meat] is not the solution for farming. [While being raised in fish farms,] fish get disease form industrial environment, [it] must be natural food. Chicken, mean, pork, is not our choice anymore, they became poison for our environment. Education should be directed for the young people, children. It's ok to inform the old people but you don’t make chance with old people, not old, but adult people. Work with children, work with the youngest ones, and you will see results before you die haha.
Yes, education, we, I am planning with my son and family to attract students from schools in the US and Canada. I have some offers from people, I am very interested in bringing students here, taking them out to the ocean, taking videos, pictures, and showing the world, that here is something big, that we have to, not should, have to protect. The more people know what we have here, the Mexican authorities can’t hide what we are doing wrong anymore you know. They should work hard on it, they are not doing it. We have been working legally the last 30 years and we have done very little. The drivers, the boat captains, should be educated about the way to approach the whale shark and we should respect the rules. One of the main rules for example is, no whale sharks, no one gets in the water. Probably next year I am going to work for stopping the swimming with whale sharks. People should just watch the whale shark, like watching in a zoo, or like dolphins. But no more swimming with them, why? Because people get crazy, people want to touch a whale shark, the travel agency that works with tour operator, they push, they push the tour operators to get a whale shark with the people. So sometimes one whale shark is surrounded by 80 boats, and that’s not fair. There is 1 thing we have to work on, the awareness of the people. Human people are like a disease, a disease for nature, for modern air, we don’t’ own nothing, we are part of the same thing, but we don’t own. We don’t own the ocean, we don’t own the creatures, so if we teach that to the next generation. If we go back to the beginning of interacting with nature with respect, not taking everything from nature, all the natural resources, we could stop oil, you know what I mean? Let’s work on the food, and the natural resources for our survival, plants, oxygen, quality of air, quality of food. If we don’t keep our ocean healthy, we don’t’ keep our modern air healthy, we won’t survive, everyone [needs] to know that, and be aware of that, so let’s work with the children.
3. Do you feel ecotourism is important to help protect wildlife here? Is the tourism beneficial to protecting wildlife?
There are problems in all the countries, every country has their own problem. Mexico is not the exception for this. Politicians, powerful people, are not very interested in being of help. They are like many other cultures, only interested in making money. So, in the case of Mexico, I think the push must come from the outside. I did it before and it worked for a while. I get attention of people like Brad Norman, Sylvia Earle, and all those famous people and it worked, we pushed the Mexican authority. We had the management plan, we had the code of conduct, we had the right rules because the rules can be changed you know. For example, size of boats, why the small size of boats? Because we have to be careful. A big boat doesn’t care you know about a whale shark, but we, we can get hurt by a whale shark. They can break the platform for the outboard engine, they can take the propeller away, they can hurt people. Big boats, big boats will hurt the whale shark. Most of the injuries of the whale shark are done by sport fishing boats or cargo ships. It is very easy to see that it was a big propeller. If you take a look at the regular outboard, it has a small propeller, it cannot cut these long pieces of a whale shark. It is hard to make the rules in that sense, because whale sharks sometime swims right below the surface because the captain cannot see, the driver cannot see the whale shark, so there is no way to avoid the accident. That’s an accident. But if we are in a whale shark area, the boats should slow down their speed and go carefully there, and many tour operators don’t’ do that, so that’s a way that whale sharks get hurt. So we need help from the outside. I got the attention of the state of Virginia, the University of Virginia and the person in charge of natural resources, and the former director of natural resources, got very interested in what we were doing here. It was a good time for me, I felt supported, I felt stronger, because these people understood you know. The way they think is the same way I think, it was a good time, I think can be done again, this time it should be bigger you know. We should attract other scientist’s attention and press Mexico to watch better, this visitor [whale shark]. We don’t own, we the Mexicans don’t own the whale sharks. They [are] visiting us like a blessing, you know for us, jobs, you know so many tourists here. It’s a blessing, we should give back, not a little bit, but lots to the whale shark. And one way to do that is to stop the swimming with the whale shark. Watch the small boat, always small boat watching whale shark. And the price should be raised, avoiding cheap people to come. I believe in the rights of everyone, shouldn’t be [controlled] by money. But you know what, when cheap people come, they don’t’ show respect. I know there are people, let’s say poor people, that are respectful, but some people who are not educated, don’t show respect to nothing, not to people, not to nature, you know. When you raise the price, a little bit, you get better educated customers, and you even make more money you know but that’s not the point. The point is to have customers with a major awareness you know, helping us to respect the whale shark.
4. What would you tell visitors who want to come visit and see whale sharks in the future?
I first would thank them for visiting my country and for visiting this tiny teeny but beautiful island. I would ask them to just show respect to the whale shark, and not only here you know, and not only the whale shark, but to do something you know in their [your] life to help nature, in their backyard planting trees, being careful with water, and teaching and sharing with children the awareness of keeping it [the planet] alive in a way to secure our survival, like [as a] species.