Hueter and colleagues have tagged more than 800 whale sharks in the Yucatan with conventional tags since 2003. Another 35 are equipped with satellite tags that precisely track their movements. The researchers have compiled a photo database of more than 950 whale sharks that identifies each individual by spots, prop scars and other features.
What the scientists have learned is that the 1,000 to 1,500 animals that show up each season spread out all over the western and northern Gulf of Mexico and disperse to the Florida Straits and southern Caribbean. One female tagged in 2007 headed to the South Atlantic between Brazil and Africa.
In 2008, the Mexican government established a whale shark biosphere reserve off the Yucatan, but the animals refuse to stay within its boundaries.
Hueter proposes increasing the size of the reserve, setting limits on the number of boats permitted to conduct whale shark tours, and strengthening and enforcing the code of conduct. He also recommends the Mexican government work with the maritime industry to move shipping lanes away from sharks, mantas and other surface swimmers.
Captain Anthony Mendillo, whose company Keen M Sportfishing International has been conducting whale shark tours out of Isla Mujeres for years, says no more regulations are needed. Mendillo says he often sees patrol officers at the shark aggregation site. Some of the chaos on the water, he said, is caused by tour operators being pressured by booking agents to guarantee that guests get to interact with the animals, or else the captains won’t get paid.
But, said Mendillo, “ecotourism is the only way the ocean is going to survive. It’s a pretty good eco-setup. If somebody is out of control, somebody will jack them up. There are probably a handful that are ding dongs.”
Mendillo last month escorted famed artist/conservationist/cinematographer Guy Harvey and his family on a whale shark excursion. Harvey loved it.
“I must have gotten on one shark with 30 people swimming with it,” Harvey said. “He was quite cool to have all this happen around him, and he was feeding. To me, it’s a great thing.”
Harvey, whose foundation is co-sponsoring an international whale shark symposium in Atlanta in October, said he would like to see more oversight of shark encounters, but “I’m happy the animals are still alive.”
Added Harvey: “The bright spark is it’s a marine interaction program in early development, and it’s non-extractive. These people would be raping the sea bottom if they weren’t taking tons of people to see the whale sharks.”