There are numerous reasons for wanting to dive in the Maldives, a few of them being: excellent visibility up to 40m, warm waters teeming with aquatic life, and exciting drift diving. But one of the top reasons has to be the opportunities the Maldives offers to dive with the magnificent whale sharks.
The waters here provide these creatures with an ideal breeding ground and this archipelago is one of just a few locations where it's possible to dive with whale sharks all year round!
The government of the Maldives has created 3 Marine Protected Areas (MPAs) to ensure the whale sharks can remain here and the Maldives Whale Shark Research Project (MWSRP) has identified at least 110 residents in the area. However, the whale shark is already recorded as a threatened species on the IUCN Red List. So is the creation of these protected areas and the increased awareness of the importance of a healthy marine environment enough to protect the survival of these majestic sharks?
Whale sharks have been hunted for decades by local fishing communities for their fins and liver oils. This fishing has been banned since June 1995 but these sharks are still found with human-imposed injuries from incidents with boat propellers, ghost nets and harpooning.
These gentle sharks can grow up to 12m in length and tolerate passive interaction, which make them a huge attraction for the diver, snorkeller and photographer. However, this kind of tourism can have negative consequences especially in more popular areas where careless fin kicks and eager photographers can startle these gentle creatures and the bubbles from large numbers of divers can diffuse their food source, plankton.
It is clear that tourism is a much-needed source of revenue for the Maldives and it directly contributes towards funding the MPAs so it's important that both tourists and locals work together to conserve Maldivian biodiversity.
The southern end of Ari Atoll provides the boundary for the Maamigili MPA which then extends north and incorporates the edge of Dhigurah Island in the east and the tip of Rangali Island's reef crest in the west. Congregations of whale sharks are present here all year round and this number increases during the monsoon full-moon coral spawning.
Here the locals from the 4 inhabited islands and 3 resort islands, together with the MWSRP, have set up a management association for the area. An assessment found that the ban on shark finning does not affect the local fishermen's livelihood here and so they too are in support of the project.
The Hanifaru MPA includes the uninhabited island of Hanifanu and its lagoon. This bay is an important nursery for whale sharks and is well-known world-wide for its large assemblies of manta rays and whale sharks, especially during the south-west monsoon.
The Angafaru MPA encompasses the southwest area of the island of Kihaadhoo. The region has wonderful biodiversity which includes: healthy and varied corals; a breeding ground for grey reef sharks; a manta ray cleaning station and visits from the same whale sharks as at Hanifaru. The MPA is managed by the Ministry of Housing, Transport and Environment and the Environment Protection Association.
In addition 6 resorts in the Baa Atoll along with local in habitants have joined together to form the Baa Atoll Resorts Marine Conservation Project which supervises the Baa Atoll MPA.
The main goal of these whale shark sanctuaries in the Maldives is to create projects through sustainable diving tourism that provide an income for locals with the intention that this will eliminate the need for harmful fishing practices and control human interference. At the same time, the whale sharks' habitat will become increasingly protected, creating a safe sanctuary for the recovery of their numbers.
Strict guidelines have been drafted for these MPAs to help with the crucial management of tourist interactions with whale sharks. Divers and snorkelers are to keep a distance of at least 3m from the shark and may not touch them. Maldives liveaboard boats may not enter the core areas, divers approach aboard dive tenders instead, and the number of boats is limited. All shark fishing is also banned.
There is a great need for these MPAs and their guidelines are sensible and achievable but due to a lack of staff and equipment they are not always implemented. The government, resorts and locals have all showed their commitment and support but it will take time before revenue earned from eco-tourism will help fund the successful monitoring of these areas.
By taking a liveaboard diving holiday in the area and following the guidelines yourself, you can directly contribute to these worthy associations and help to educate your fellow tourists and divers. In this way, your holiday can have a positive impact on the local environment and the protection of the whale shark, and at the same time it will be a truly memorable and exhilarating experience!