Swimming with Whale Sharks: Beneficial or Cruel?

Written by on February 18, 2013 in Marine Life, Sharks

UPDATE — April 14

There is still no decision on the Whale Shark Sanctuary in Kenya, but recently, more conservationists have spoken out against it. Check out this article to get the update: Whale shark ‘enclosure’ plans in Kenya ‘flawed and misguided.’ And, if you’re curious, take a look at Mr. Bassen’s Facebook post about the benefits that this sanctuary will have. It sparked quite a debate and everyone has very strong opinions. What do you think?

Whale Shark.

Whale Shark. Photo credit: NOAA.

Next month, Kenya could become home to the world’s largest whale shark enclosure if the East African Whale Shark Trust (EAWST) succeeds in opening the Waa Whale Shark Sanctuary.

The plans for the Sanctuary began three years ago and now depend on the environmental impact assessment, conducted by the National Environment Management Authority.

The enclosure is located in Waa, between Diani and Mombasa on the South Coast. It is sectioned off by a thick net that measures 2,000 meters by 600 meters.

Visitors will pay around $100 per person to enter the park where they will have a three hour marine awareness lecture, followed by one hour swimming with whale sharks.

EAWST says there are two purposes for the park: the first is to generate revenue that could be re-invested in whale shark conservation efforts, and the second is to establish a research center and potential breeding program. The park will also create many new employment opportunities for local residents.

The enclosure will hold two whale sharks at a time. Then, when whale sharks in the wild are migrating closer to the coast–which happens twice a year, typically between September and October and again in February or March–the whale sharks will be released and replaced with two new ones. This is part of their effort to ensure that the animals don’t spend their whole lives in captivity.

The sharks will be caught with a padded tail-rope attached to heavy buoys that will prevent it from swimming away and will tire it out. Once it is exhausted, they will take it to the park.

Some conservationists feel that it is unnecessary and cruel to take animals from the wild and showcase them like this. Many say that it’s more about money, not conservation or education.

Volker Bassen, founder of the Waa Whale Shark Sanctuary disagrees. “If you ever have a chance to swim with whale sharks, you will never forget the magical experience,” he said. “You will become an ambassador for the protection of these majestic animals for the rest of your life.”

What do you think? Is Volker right in thinking that swimming with these creatures will change people’s perspectives? Or will the park to more harm than good? Tell us in the comment section below…

Whale shark at the Churaumi Aquarium in Okinawa, Japan - one of only two locations where whale sharks have been successfully maintained in captivity.

Whale shark at the Churaumi Aquarium in Okinawa, Japan – one of only two locations where whale sharks have been successfully maintained in captivity. The other is the Georgia Aquarium in the US. Photo credit: Sushicam via photopin cc.

To learn more, check out some of these links:

Copyright © 2013 by Marine Science Today, a publication of Marine Science Today LLC.

About the Author

About the Author: Emily Tripp is the Publisher and Editor of MarineScienceToday.com. She holds marine science and biology degrees from the University of Miami's Rosenstiel School of Marine and Atmospheric Science and a Master of Advanced Studies degree in Marine Biodiversity and Conservation from Scripps Institution of Oceanography. When she's not writing about marine science, she's probably running around outside or playing with her dog. .

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  1. A better option than aquariums but still would not support this. You can swim with whale sharks in Western Australia and the Philippines in their natural environment.

  2. bein aymeric says:

    What is that!?! You can’t catch such a big animal and keep them captive.

    Some aquariums keep them in tank, and we saw them dive. Here it’s gonna be just about money!

    You have to bring people to the whale shark and not the whale shark to the people!

    We could tag them then take the boat and trying to find them. But we must not catch them.

  3. Emily says:

    Thanks for your response, Tracey. I agree–it’s definitely better than an aquarium.

  4. Emily says:

    Thanks for your reply. I think you’re right–we should be bringing people to the animal…doesn’t seem fair to do it the other way around.

  5. Tom says:

    Tracey – How do you feel about aquariums and zoos in general? When I try to think about them from the oppositve perspective — as if WE were in the cages and the animals were looking at us (Planet of the Apes?) it feels uncomfortable.

  6. Simon Rushton says:

    Just unneccesary. You can swim/snorkel with Whale Sharks right here in Kenya. You just have to pick the right time of year AND be lucky. But I would rather see a whale shark in the wild than in a zoo, caged, for the tourists pleasure.

  7. Emily says:

    Agreed, Simon – I would also much rather see one in its natural habitat, swimming freely. Have you ever been lucky enough to see one while snorkeling?

  8. Every argument has at least two sides to it. I’m not prepared to judge the merits of this enclosure until I have a lot more information to formulate an informed opinion. I am however, prepared to say what we do, which definitely does not involve capturing animals. We are fortunate because we have a rather lengthy aggregation of animals in a relatively small area in the Mafia Channel in Tanzania and so we are able to study whale sharks and swim with them without harassing them. Kitu Kiblu, based in Mafia, was founded on three, to us, self-evident concepts:
    1) For whale shark conservation to be sustainable the live, wild animal must be worth more to those authorities that have the power to intervene when animals are killed or maimed than when it is dead or caged.
    2) Wild animals are essential components of their ecosystem and have an inherent right to live free and unmolested by humans.
    3) Through research we can understand enough to be able to predict behavior and interact with whale sharks in a way that does them no harm.
    Find out more on facebook or on our website.

  9. Emily says:

    Hi, Steve – Thank you so much for taking the time to write such a thoughtful comment. I really appreciate it!

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