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Scientific Data to Support Whale Shark Marine Ecotourism

September 22, 2016

There is much to learn about whale sharks, especially on their presence in Indonesian waters. This is the reason why Conservation International is working with the Government by conducting researches about whale sharks. More detailed scientific information will hopefully lead to better whale shark conservation management. At the same time, we can also develop whale shark-based marine ecotourism.

In order to protect this charismatic marine species, the Government of Indonesia has stipulated its full protection status in all Indonesian waters since 2013 through the Ministry of Maritime Affairs and Fisheries Ministerial Decree No. 18/KEPMEN-KP/2013. This law only recognizes whale sharks in marine ecotourism sector that abides to certain protocols. Interaction procedures in tourism activities and diving with whale sharks need to be adjusted as to not disturb the behaviors of the species and to support their protection.

The Director of Conservation and Marine Biodiversity Unit, Ministry of Maritime Affairs and Fisheries, Andi Rusandi, said that, “An important issue we’re facing in managing whale sharks is the limitation in information about their population and migration patterns, therefore, we need support from multiple stakeholders in protecting them. That’s why complete information regarding this fish species is needed to support its conservation efforts and whale shark-based marine ecotourism management in Indonesia.”

Andi emphasized the importance of managing whale shark tourism wisely in order to maintain sustainable tourism and consider the conservation aspect. “The Ministry of Maritime Affairs and Fisheries has published the ‘Whale Shark Tourism Guide’ for whale shark tourism, especially to avoid direct interaction between tourists and whale sharks. This guide needs to be socialized continuously,” Andi adds.

As an GoI partner, since 2014 Conservation International Indonesia has been doing several researches regarding whale sharks in Indonesia to support its conservation and tourism management efforts. The ecotourism sector has a lot of potential. For example, the Maldives recorded US$ 7.6 million in revenue in 2012 and US$ 9.4 million in 2013 from tourists’ direct purchase in South Ari Marine Protected Area.

“Whale sharks are a mysterious fish whose biological, behavioral, and activity informations are relatively unknown. Therefore, in order to develop our knowledge about this charismatic species, we have conducted several efforts, namely: satellite tagging to monitor whale sharks movement in Bird’s Head Seascapes (BHS), West Papua; Photo ID Database development which can be seen in BHS website (www.birdheadseascape.com) to monitor their population in said area; as well as establishing a partnership with Georgia Aquarium in Atlanta, Unites States of America, in an effort to expand scientific knowledge about whale sharks in Indonesia, specificially to assess disturbance rates from tourism activities toward whale shark’s health,” explained Victor Nikijuluw, Marine Program Director, Conservation International Indonesia.

Since December 2015, Conservation International Indonesia has documented remarkable movements of the observed whale sharks in Bird’s Head Seascapes area, in which one of them swam across Yap Island to the south of Mariana Trench — the deepest trench in the world at a depth of 10,994 meters. The movements of these whale sharks can be observed in the Whale Shark Tracking Application that Conservation International just recently released in June 2016. Conservation International Indonesia also has developed the Whale Shark Photo ID Database as a storing platform for whale shark photos taken by divers in BHS in order to monitor its population in the area. Information gathered from the Whale Shark Tracking Application and the Whale Shark Photo ID Database may provide insights to whale shark tourism management and development.

Whale shark population monitoring activity is important in conserving the world’s largest fish. The Head of Subdirectorate of Biodiversity Protection and Conservation, Directorate of Marine Biodiversity Conservation, Ministry of Maritime Affairs and Fisheries, Syamsul Bahri Lubis, states that the ministry has also published a General Guide for Whale Shark Monitoring so monitoring activities can be standardized. Syamsul then adds that the National Action Plan on Shark and Ray 2016–2020 has been drafted to adjust the whale shark conservation efforts. “We are also initiating a regulation on conservation for sharks as a whole. We need all stakeholders’ support to help us succeed,” he says.

Victor also remarked, “Considering the whale shark tourism potential for Indonesians, research on whale sharks will be important. Conservation International has built a partnership with the Georgia Aquarium to develop our scientific knowledge about whale sharks in Indonesia, most importantly to review health factors of whale sharks in order to generate basic information about their health and to ensure their survival during tagging activities.”

Ben Gurion Saroy, the Head of Cenderawasih Bay National Park Center — the biggest national park in Indonesia which is well known as a home to whale sharks – expressed that although research development on whale sharks began in 2011, the information acquired regarding this species is still limited. “Conservation International Indonesia’s research support hopefully can strengthen the conservation efforts and whale shark ecotourism management, specifically on interaction protocols while diving with this enormous animal,” he concludes.

Recent Findings

  • The majority of whale sharks in Cenderawasih Bay spend their time in the origin location in Kwatisore. However, since 2015, several new movements have been detected, such as a dive to the deepest trench in the world, also a movement across Palau to the east coastal area in Mindanao Island, the Philippines, and a movement of two whale sharks across the “head” part of Bird’s Head Seascapes to Raja Ampat.
  • The information about the biology and reproduction of whale sharks is largely unknown. Whale sharks in general prey on small fishes (e.g. silverside baitfish), planktonic crustacea, and fish eggs in several aggregation sites. Whale shark feed by filtering out prey using its five pairs of gills. Whale sharks are often seen eating by swimming and opening its mouth or actively sucking water into its mouth and then filtering it through its gills.
  • Just like other aggregation sites in the world, whale shark schools in shallow waters of Indonesia are dominated by adolescent males. Tourists seek opportunities to swim with whale sharks in these areas.
  • The appearance of whale sharks in Bone Bolango Regency, Gorontalo, shows the potential benefits for communities that could be gained through whale shark-based ecotourism. Nevertheless, the protocols of this ecotourism need to be ascertained to ensure that these tourism activities do not interfere with whale sharks’ behaviors and generate sustainable benefits.

Media Contacts

Conservation International-Indonesia

About Conservation International-Indonesia

Since 1987, Conservation International has been working to improve human well-being through the care of nature. We are working to ensure a healthy, productive planet for everyone, because people need nature to thrive. Building upon a strong foundation of science, partnership and field demonstration, Conservation International empowers societies to responsibly and sustainably care for nature, our global biodiversity, for the well-being of humanity. Conservation International has been working in Indonesia since 1991, supporting conservation efforts to achieve sustainable development goals for the lasting benefit of local people. For further information, visit: www.conservation.org.