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September 2010    Download the Entire Issue (PDF) Available to the Public Vol. 36, No. 9   RSS Feed for Undercurrent Issues
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Save the Whale Sharks

help them adapt to their new home

from the September, 2010 issue of Undercurrent   Subscribe Now

For several years, Undercurrent has raised money from our subscribers and donated funds to Seacology, a nonprofit organization that puts its money to work to save the reefs. We have contributed to the building of a school in Fiji and in return, the villagers stopped fishing along a sizeable stretch of reef. We purchased an outboard motor so rangers could patrol a marine preserve in Belize. Seacology’s executive director, Duane Silverstein, has developed some excellent projects, and here’s another we think our readers should know about . . . as well as a tip on a good guide to take you to where the whale sharks swarm.

* * *

I went to Mexico to play with dominoes, or for the uninitiated, swim with whale sharks. You see, due to the many white spots that mark their gray bodies, the nickname for whale sharks in Mexico is “dominoes.” At up to 48 feet in length and 25 tons, whale sharks are the world’s largest fish. Comparatively little is known about them because there are not large numbers of them left in the oceans, and for much of the year they are solitary animals.

Less than 10 years ago, marine biologists discovered that the world’s largest aggregation of whale sharks takes place from June to September near Holbox Island, off of Mexico’s Yucatan Peninsula northeast coast. In fact, Undercurrent broke this story in its October 2004 issue. There has been one significant change since then. Though several whale sharks can still be seen near Holbox, the largest whale shark aggregation can now be found one hour north of Isla Mujeres, or three hours by boat from Holbox Island.

I recently visited Mexico to snorkel with these mighty creatures. By law, this experience is for swimming and snorkeling only; no diving allowed. Our guide was Rafael de la Parra ( Rafael used to work with whale sharks for the conservation arm of the Mexican government. He has participated in whale shark tagging and research for many years. Rafael and his son, Emilio, are great people, great guides and speak fluent English. Unlike other tour operators, Rafael only charters his boat for groups of 2 to 10 for the total price of $700.

For several weeks before our July trip, Rafael gave me reports on whale shark sightings. One day he would see 30, the next perhaps 100, and then none. So we had a mix of excitement and trepidation when Rafael picked us up in his boat from our hotel on Isla Mujeres for the 80-minute ride to the whale shark aggregation area. But our worrying was for naught. When we arrived, we counted 170 “dominoes” from our boat. This blew our minds until we came back the next day and counted more than 300. It took us all of 30 seconds to don our snorkel masks and fins and slide into the water. We were surrounded by whale sharks in every direction. All we had to do was wait until a few swam by us. This never took long because whale sharks are filter feeders and must always keep swimming with their very wide mouths open, both to eat and force water by their gills so they can utilize the oxygen.

Other than following us with their small eyes, the whale sharks seemed oblivious to our presence, often swimming just a few feet away. Occasionally while looking in one direction, I would turn around in the water to find a whale shark only inches away, which was rather startling. Rafael yelled down from his boat, “Welcome to my office!”

Indeed, after spending two days with these fantastic fish, I knew my organization, Seacology, must help them survive and flourish. Rafael explained that huge cargo ships come by this area several times a week, sometimes striking the slow-moving creatures. You see, the area does not contain demarcation buoys warning ship captains to stay clear of the vulnerable whale shark population in the water. Rafael wants to deploy a series of large state-of-the-art demarcation buoys, complete with GPS transponders, to warn ships to stay clear. Once these buoys are deployed, official navigation charts would also denote the area as a whale shark reserve.

Rafael suggested that if Seacology could come up with half of the funds required for this project, many of the local hotels and whale shark tour operators could match this contribution. One doesn’t have to be an expert in dominoes to connect the dots to know this would be a worthwhile effort.

If you would like to help protect these gentle giants, visit the Seacology website at and indicate your donation for the whale shark buoy project. Whale sharks are listed on the International Union of the Conservation of Nature’s Red List of Vulnerable Species, meaning their future is in danger.

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