There are many reasons to scuba dive in the Maldives; superb visibility up to 40m, teeming biomass in warm waters and exhilarating drift dives are but a few. Near the top of the list must be the excellent opportunities that the Maldives affords to dive with majestic whale sharks.
The strong currents carrying in plankton-rich water create a perfect breeding ground for these magnificent creatures. In fact, the Maldives Whale Shark Research Project (MWSRP) has identified 110 resident whale sharks in the region. The Maldives archipelago is one of the few destinations where you can dive with whale sharks at any time of the year!
To ensure their continued presence, 3 Marine Protected Areas (MPAs) were created in June 2009 by a government that is fast becoming environmentally conscientious. In addition, awareness of the importance a healthy marine environment plays in attracting international tourists is increasing.
Are these projects just in the nick of time? The whale shark has been categorised as endangered on the IUCN Red List of Threatened Species. Will the creation of these MPAs be enough to turn back the tide and save these gentle giants?
Indigenous fishing communities have long targeted whale sharks for their fins and liver oils. The ban on fishing of whale sharks, imposed in June 1995 by the Ministry of Fisheries and Agriculture, has been marginal in its impact, but a large percentage of these sharks are still found with injuries from human causes - ghost nets, boat propellers, aborted finnings and harpooning.
Contrary to what one would think, the dramatic increase in ecotourism also poses a threat to their survival. Although these magnificent creatures can grow up to 12m in length, they are passive by nature, generally tolerating non-invasive interactions. When being the main attraction for divers, the situation can quickly get out of control in high density areas. With scuba divers' bubbles diffusing the plankton, snorkellers finning above with an occasionally misdirected kick making contact with these fish, and photographers placing themselves right in the escape route of startled creatures, fears are mounting that their safety will be compromised by unregulated tourism to such an extent that their habitat and behaviour will be altered.
Tourism is a key generator of revenue for the Maldives, as well as the means of providing funding for MPAs, so eco-tourism is a double-edged sword. Fortunately, a report on the economic motivations for conserving Maldivian biodiversity found that locals and dive tourists are willing to pay up to US$ 18 million per annum for its conservation.
The Maamigili MPA boundary extends 1 km into the sea from the reef fringe at the southern end of Ari Atoll, extending to the north eastern tip of Dhigurah Island and down to the north western tip of the reef crest of Rangali Island. This is one area where whale sharks are present almost every day of the year, with exceptionally large congregations of whale sharks occurring during the protracted coral spawning in the north-east monsoon full moon periods.
The MWSRP together with a consortium of local communities from the 4 inhabited islands and the 3 resort islands has undertaken management of this protected area. An assessment of the local fishing industry discovered that it does not rely on whale sharks and thus the implementation of the ban on fishing sharks will not detract from the local fishermen's income. Chief of Dhigurah, Ahmed Faiz Rasheed, says the local community supports the Maamigili MPA as “it is very much connected to the people of the Maldives, especially the fishermen.”
The Hanifaru Bay MPA encompasses the unpopulated Hanifaru island and lagoon. This bay serves as an essential nursery for whale sharks and is world renowned for congregations of manta rays and whale sharks, feeding on zooplankton during the south-west monsoon.
The Angafaru MPA is situated south west of Kihaadhoo Island. This site has incredible biodiversity, with a manta ray cleaning station and very healthy and varied coral formations. Also serving as a fragile breeding ground for grey reef sharks, this region is frequented by the same whale sharks that are seen at Hanifaru.
The Ministry of Housing, Transport and Environment and the Environmental Protection Association have undertaken the management of the Angafaru MPA. Due to the increased influx of tourists hoping to dive with whale sharks, 6 resorts on Baa Atoll have combined forces with local communities to form the Baa Atoll Resort's Marine Conservation Project to oversee the integrity of the Baa Atoll MPAs.
The Maldivian whale shark sanctuaries have a common goal to create revenue producing projects through sustainable diving tourism that provides locals with an alternative income, encouraging them to move away from harmful fishing practices, while at the same time preserving the whale shark's habitat, protecting them from human interference and creating a safe haven for the recovery of their population.
Extensive guidelines have been drawn up to manage tourist interactions with whale sharks in these 3 MPAs. All fishing of sharks is banned. Scuba divers and snorkellers may not get closer than 3m to a whale shark, may not touch them or interfere with their direction of movement. Maldives Liveaboard boats are not permitted within the core zones, but instead the divers approach the area aboard dive tenders.
The number of boats in the area is limited as well as the proximity to whale sharks. Captains may not drop anchor, except in emergencies and to prevent sharks injuring themselves on the propeller, the engine needs to be turned off if whale sharks approach the boat.
The need for these MPAs is widely agreed upon and the guidelines are sensible and comprehensive. But the management of these national parks is dismally inadequate. The key to their success is the ability to monitor the sanctuaries and enforce the guidelines. The government, communities and resorts have come together with the intention of making these MPAs meaningful. As the Minister of Environment, Mohamed Aslam, has observed: "We need to increase our ability to enforce existing environmental laws before creating new protected areas." Worthy sentiments, but there is still a long way to go.
In time, revenue earned from eco-tourism will help to fund the necessary equipment and salaried staff required to successfully monitor and enforce the MPA guidelines. The Baa Atoll Resort's Marine Conservation Project is pushing for government enforcement and the Save Our Seas Foundation has supplied a boat to patrol and be on the spot to motivate tourists and boat captains to voluntarily adhere to the guidelines. But, without government assistance in the form of monitoring, apprehension and imposing penalties for non-compliance, the MPAs could prove to be toothless tigers.
Individuals wishing to champion the cause of whale shark conservation in the Maldives could do something as simple as taking a liveaboard diving cruise in the region. Following the guidelines yourself and contributing to those bodies striving to make a positive impact will encourage other tourists to do the same. In this way diving with whale sharks will be a magical and sustainable experience for everyone.
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