47% or 74 of Whale Sharks in the surveyed area of Oslob, Cebu, Philippines are injured by propellers for chasing boats they have learned to associate for food suppliers. Serious injuries, even the first death, are imminent.
For the record, Whale Sharks are gentle by nature and it is not normal for them to chase boats and even more abnormal for them to look at boats as a source of food. However, they have been hand-fed in Oslob since 2012 to lure them nearer the feeder boats so tourists, swimmers and divers can see them up close and swim with them.
The practice has unexpectedly reconditioned the Whale Sharks to associate boats, paddled or motorised, big or small, for suppliers of food. This is not a serious problem while the Whale Sharks are still within the feeding area, a controlled environment.
It becomes a serious issue when they go out in the wild and open sea, an uncontrolled environment, in search of food. Their reconditioned behaviour might lure them into chasing after boats, including hunting boats meant to slaughter them, expecting to be fed but run into propeller blades or get their heads harpooned instead.
Why do they need to search for food when they are already being fed in Oslob? One Whale Shark consumes 2 tonnes (1,814 kilos) of food per day, while the snack food provided to them amounted to just a few kilos at best.
As the debate rages on whether to continue the feeding practice or not, Whale Sharks are undeniably getting injured.
Call it “casualties of human love”. They are unintentional results, but harmful just the same.
To be clear, this article is not about whether to stop the practice of feeding or not. This is not about which party is right or wrong.
This article is simply about taking meaningful steps to prevent further injuries to Whale Sharks.
Interim measures to prevent injuries
A possible preventive measure is to build floating platforms to feed the sharks, and where swimmers can hang on while in the water.
These platforms will be made of materials that are least harmful to sharks on contact.
The platforms’ design and the feeding method should be done in such a way as to prevent sharks from colliding with each other and competing for food.
Competition and aggressiveness should not be allowed to develop as it can have unknown repercussions.
Boats can be used to transfer swimmer, divers and tourists. They cannot have propellers, and they must be fitted with insulation materials not hurting to Whale Sharks
The floating feeder platform should be able to minimise injuries and reconditioned them to not regard boats as suppliers of food. It will not resolve the debate but it will prevent injuries.
The clock is ticking.
Bear in mind that the Philippines signed into law the protection of Whale Sharks in 1998 following the poaching of 6 Whale Sharks in Donsol, Sorsogon.
I fear the day when the first Whale Shark dies. Don’t wait for that to happen.
There is no valid reason to act slowly, and hundreds of reasons to act swiftly.
Every single person in Oslob, Cebu cannot deny that the Whale Sharks have significantly improved the quality of their lives and livelihood.
Since the opening date of this tourist attractions in January 2012 more than 140,000 interaction tickets have been sold worth over 1 million US dollar.
The quoted figures were compiled before 30 September 2013.
In 2015 alone, the Tan-awan Oslob Whale Shark and Fishermen’s Association (TOWSFA) earned 120 million pesos, municipal government earned 60 million pesos and barangay Tan-awan earned 20 million pesos. These did not include earnings by transport providers, resorts, tour agencies, etc.
Tourists, too, have been having a lot of fun because of the Whale Sharks.
It’s about time for all stakeholders to spend some time, effort and money to protect the Whale Sharks.
Oslob had given one young Whale Shark a name – Fermin, apparently to show just how much the community has grown fond of him and the Whale Sharks as a whole.
Fermin is now blind on one eye and showing multiple propeller cuts and other injuries on the head and mouth.
Was the giving of the name meant to show that the community and the stakeholders really care?
Will the tourism stakeholders in Oslob, Cebu wait until Fermin goes blind on the other eye as well, or die?