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Whale shark ecotourism brings new hope to fishing communities in Holbox Island, Quintana Roo


Ryan Biller

Ecotourism with whale sharks on Holbox Island, Quintana Roo. All photos © Ryan Biller 2021

Every year, the Mexican state of Quintana Roo is full of foreign tourists. Even in 2020, amid the global COVID-19 pandemic, the city of Cancun alone received more than two million tourists. Since the region was one of the few that allowed foreigners to enter, I decided to make the trip from the United States to the Yucatan Peninsula; even though it wasn’t the luxury resorts and clubs that had encouraged me to visit it.

Whale shark approaching, Isla Holbox, Mexico © Ryan Biller, 2021
Whale shark approaching, Isla Holbox, Mexico © Ryan Biller, 2021

It was, instead, the largest fish in the world, the mighty whale shark, whose massive annual aggregations in the waters between the Caribbean Sea and the Gulf of Mexico rival the presence of tourists during the summer months. These soft giants are added to the shores of the Yucatan Peninsula to feed on plankton-rich waters from mid-May to late September. Since whale sharks are filters, the abundance of plankton near Cancun, Isla Holbox, and Isla Mujeres makes them prime locations not only for sightings, but also for encountering these massive fish.

My goal was to meet one of these remarkable creatures with polka dots while better understanding how ecotourism in the area is affecting, both positively and negatively, this endangered marine species.

For years, whale sharks have sometimes targeted these coastal communities as a food source, and fishermen have clashed in the region.

“Isla Mujeres was a fishing island. The only thing that was usually seen (before the arrival of whale shark ecotourism) in all places close to the water were dead animals, ”said Jim Abernethy, a shark conservationist and tour operator.

In recent history, however, the inhabitants of places like Isla Mujeres and Isla Holbox have come to depend on whale sharks. These giant fish are now a central part not only of the economies of these islands, but also of their cultures. Eventually, the economic interest in fishing began to change. A living whale shark was potentially worth more than a dead one.

“Unfortunately, very sadly, for the human race, there must be an economic interest. It is a reality that we must accept and, instead of promoting, we must work on it, ”said Jonathan R. Green, biologist and founder of the Galapagos Whale Shark Project.

Captain of a whale shark, Isla Holbox, Mexico © Ryan Biller, 2021
Captain of a whale shark, Isla Holbox, Mexico © Ryan Biller, 2021

Fascinated by what appeared to be, from afar, an ongoing conservation success story, I arranged a boat trip from Holbox Island, a sandbar on the map north of Cancun, to try my luck and see if could detect a shark. . The tour operator, VIP Holbox, gave an information session to me and other snorkelers on the morning of our trip. They remarked that in no case did they allow us to touch the whale shark. It was absolutely a must, they said we kept our distance. We were then offered a free, biodegradable sunscreen that would not bother the sharks once we were in the water.

The journey itself was long and arduous. We skated through choppy waters for over three hours. Eventually, however, we saw on the blue horizon at least a dozen small boats swaying over the water. Those boats were other ecotourism operators, who had sent paying tourists to do exactly what I was there to do. We read our fins and masks. Only two of us, accompanied by our guide, were able to enter the water next to the sharks at once. We each did two dives, although I got a third as it was my birthday!

Being so out of the element itself like that, next to such a magnificent and gigantic creature, was a moment of humility. Thanks to this type of tourism, whale sharks have become a valuable source of income for the inhabitants.

“The change I saw annually in Mexico due to the rise of the whale shark industry was incredible. It went from angry and upset people to each other because they were all starving and broken and in garbage boots, to boats. beautiful and happy people, everyone got along well, peace and a prosperous and very happy community. It is a perfect example of what we need most in the world, “Abernethy said.

When these massive summer aggregations of whale sharks were first discovered, the highly lucrative tourism industry soon developed that offers travelers the opportunity not only to observe them but to swim with the fish. Although the arrival of this new form of travel in the region is quite new, it has had measurable effects on both the creature and the communities.

A tourist observes a whale shark up close, Isla Holbox, Mexico © Ryan Biller, 2021
A tourist observes a whale shark up close, Isla Holbox, Mexico © Ryan Biller, 2021

“The whale shark industry (tourism) started only twenty years ago. Before that, few people knew what a whale shark was or where to find them, “says Guillermo Torfer, who runs VIP Holbox. Since then, the possibility of swimming next to the world’s largest shark has been has become a popular addition to the travel itineraries of many tourists in Mexico.

With its growing popularity, the Mexican government has had to impose rigid regulations, a measure that has been praised by many conservationists, as they claim it will ensure the sustainability of the whale shark tourism industry. Considered by many to be the true victory of whale shark tourism in Mexico, it is not the role of government, but the way it involves locals in conservation efforts.

“Fishermen now love (whale sharks) because they are taking out divers and divers, the same coastal communities that used to hunt whale sharks are now taking advantage of it in a very positive way, so they have a very invested interest. protect them, ”said Jonathan R. Green.

Obviously, there are a myriad of possible harmful impacts that unregulated and unsustainable tourism related to whale sharks could have on the species. One of the most common would be propeller-induced lacerations in the back of boats, even tourist boats. Still, the consensus when it comes to whale shark tourism in Mexico is that it is doing better than bad, as long as it is sustainable.

The best news for whale sharks is that they no longer have a target on the backs of locals.

“Boat captains used to be fishermen, but now they are used as boat captains to take tourists to see whale sharks. It creates an alternative economy for fishermen and involves conservation, ”said Deni Ramírez Macías, a marine biologist and founder of Tiburón Ballena México.

Another observed benefit of relatively new industry is tax benefits. Whale shark tourism has proven, for the people of Isla Holbox and Isla Mujeres, a much more lucrative business than fishing.

“Since whale shark ecotourism was introduced to Isla Mujeres, it has become a thriving ecotourism city, which is very fantastic, because that’s what we need for the future,” Jim Abernethy said.

The future of the whale shark is that its habitats are still uncertain, and ecotourism is by no means the solution to the much greater threats still posed. However, it could be a key to protecting the species. While there are still many problems facing the world’s largest fish, sustainable ecotourism could lead more people to fight for animal conservation.

As Deni Ramírez told me: “When (the locals) start to feel that they depend on the animal, that their economy, their family depends on the animal, they will realize that I have to protect, that I should worry, that I should do something.

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Published or updated on: November 16, 2021 by Ryan Biller © 2021


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