Swimming with Whale Sharks in Mexico: Ecotourism or Exploitation?

The water was about 70 degrees. When we jumped in, I had forgotten to pull my snorkel mask down—it was still strapped to my forehead. This was a dead giveaway to the tour guide that I was inexperienced, and he swam over and yanked the mask down over my eyes.  He then guided me and one more novice snorkeler to an open area of the water, away from everyone else. Gently, he pushed our heads beneath the surface, and when I opened my eyes, I was staring at a fish roughly the size of the 38 Geary back home. This was a Whale Shark, the largest fish on the planet, and here in La Paz, the capital city of Baja California and a well-known hub for shark migration, such sights were fairly commonplace. Through Cabo Expeditions, the tour company that organized these trips,anyone with $140 could see these giants up close. There were other companies operating in the area as well, and midway through the trip, our guide directed our attention to a shark in the distance being flanked by another group of tourists. They were patting the animal’s sides while it tried to feed on plankton, and as excitement overcame tact, the patting turned into light slapping. Our guide took a moment to stress the importance of enjoying these animals in a respectful way.  It was the only black mark on an otherwise magical afternoon.

 Laz Paz, captial of Baja California. Az81964444. Public Domain

Laz Paz, captial of Baja California. Az81964444. Public Domain

Three years later, while attending UC Berkeley, I stumbled into a showing of "Mexico Pelagico,” a documentary that followed a group of conservationists as they tried to protect various sharks in the Sea of Cortez. It got me thinking about my trip to La Paz. In the film, it was said that 97 million sharks were killed every year, with Mexico ranking 6th among countries participating in the slaughter. While greed and envy were contributing factors to overfishing, the main factor was poverty; For many, shark fishing was the only way to make a decent living. The film went on to examine the recent explosion of Whale Shark ecotourism in Cancun, with tour companies recruiting the very fishermen who killed sharks in the past as tour operators working toward their preservation. It seemed like a practical solution that addressed both the needs of the environment and those of the fishermen. However, thinking back to that poor shark being slapped by those tourists in La Paz still made me uneasy, and I began to wonder what alternatives were available to people who wished to see and learn about these animals.

After graduation, I traveled to China and visited the Chimelong Ocean Kingdom, currently the largest aquarium on Earth. The Ocean Kingdom had the finest display tank I’d ever seen, complete with two juvenile whale sharks. I also flew to Atlanta to visit the Georgia Aquarium, the second largest aquarium on Earth, and currently the only place in the US where one can see captive Whale Sharks. This aquarium had four adult sharks in a tank that was a bit smaller than its Chinese counterpart, but still gave the animals plenty of room to move around. Both aquariums had invested millions into the care of these animals and, as far as I could tell, both were deeply committed to Whale Shark conservation and education, but neither aquarium left the same lasting impression that my trip to La Paz did.  Not only were there more sharks see Mexico, but they also seemed more at ease in their natural environment. For me personally, there was a sense that I as a human being was participating in the local ecosystem, not dominating it or trying to replicate it somewhere else.

 A  pair of Whale Sharks. Elias Levy. CC BY 2.0

A  pair of Whale Sharks. Elias Levy. CC BY 2.0

Is snorkeling with Whale Sharks beneficial? Is it exploitative? The evidence suggests it’s a bit of both. A study conducted between 2012 and 2014 on Whale Shark ecotourism in the Philippines revealed that over 95 percent of tourists touched the animals during their encounters with them, even though they knew It was not permitted and penalties included jail time. In Djibouti, scars from boat propellers have been observed on up to 65% of the local Whale Shark population. Now, the good news: In 2013, a group of researchers from the University of British Columbia determined that the annual revenue from shark fishing stood at $630 million and had been declining over the past decade, while the annual revenue from shark ecotourism was $314 million, a figure that was projected to increase to $780 million over the next 20 years.  These numbers suggest an inverse relationship between the rise of ecotourism and the decline of fishing. In the film “Mexico Pelagico,” it was said that Baja's’ fish biomass was projected to increase by 465% over the next 17 years. While there are benefits and drawbacks to snorkeling with Whale sharks, the former seems to outweigh the latter.   

 A Whale Shark at the Georgia Aquarium. Zac Wolf. CC BY-SA 2.5.

A Whale Shark at the Georgia Aquarium. Zac Wolf. CC BY-SA 2.5.

Whale Shark Ecotourism is a booming business, and some companies are bound to be more or less respectful than others, but overall it seems like a step in the right direction.  If the shark at the mercy of those tourists back in La Paz suffered any discomfort, it was most likely temporary, as the shark was probably free to go about its business once the tourists had left. This is certainly a better fate for a shark than being hooked on a fishing line and chopped into pieces, or being confined to a tank for the rest of its life.  The fact that we are beginning to change our perception of sharks and recognize the importance of their conversation is a sign of progress- our approach can refine itself over time. In the meantime, I’m planning my next trip to La Paz.





JONATHAN ROBINSON is an intern at CATALYST. He is a travel enthusiast always adding new people, places, experiences to his story. He hopes to use writing as a means to connect with others like himself.

Screen Shot 2018-10-17 at 11.22.25 AM.png