This weekend, on the eve of a day devoted to whale sharks around the globe, the Georgia Aquarium is throwing a party, and trying to remind us not to love the giant creatures to death.
The aquarium has four whale sharks in its collection, but is also part of a conservation effort near the Yucatan Peninsula, where hundreds of whale sharks gather each summer in the warm waters to feed on the eggs of a tuna species called the little tunny.
An industry has grown up around the yearly phenomenon, drawing eco-tourists in boats out to view and swim with the 30-foot fish. The problem, said Alistair Dove, director of research and conservation programs at the Georgia Aquarium, is that the tours are getting out of hand.
Guides battle one another for good spots. Captains send boatloads of swimmers into the water when they’re only supposed to go in two at a time. Navigators jockeying for position are running right over the slow-moving filter-feeders. Dove said hundreds of whale sharks show the scars that are evidence of propeller strikes.
There are licensing procedures and regulations for the tour operators, but, said Dove, “they are self-enforced, which is to say they are not enforced at all.” Dove asks potential tourists to pick a reputable service, and suggests a letter-writing campaign to urge the Mexican government to seek stricter controls.
On Saturday, Aug. 29, the aquarium will observe Whale Shark Day, with special games for children, and a message for adults that whale sharks in the Caribbean need more protection.
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