A shark encounter that should be a pleasant, awe inspiring event become an example of how Utila dive industry is sometimes killing its “golden egg laying goose” – the Rhincodon Typus, the world’s biggest fish, also known as the Whale Shark.
Around 5pm on July 23, several Utila dive boats along with passengers of Captain Vern’s catamaran recognized signs of whale Shark presence off Utila’s old airport. There were schools of tuna jumping and surface bubbles indicating that a Whale Shark was close by. Captain Vern’s catamaran found itself 10 meters from a giant fish feeding on the surface with its mouth open and the rest of its body pointing vertically down.
The Ulysses, a Cross Creek owned dive boat that was further away, spotted the giant fish as well and begun heading straight for it. The crew of the Ulysses headed for the Shark at around 5-6 knots, driving the boat over the area where the fish was seconds before, and missing it by just a couple of meters. Snorkelers jumped off the boat’s rear to observe the shark, but the encounter didn’t last long as the shark dove and did not appear in the area again.
As the boat approached, the mouth of the Whale Shark was on the surface and the animal was particularly vulnerable to being hit by the boat’s hull and propeller. The fish’s vertical position made it difficult for it to turn and escape the approaching boat.
This type of boat approach could not only scare the shark and scrape it with its propeller, but it could also provoke it to become aggressive towards the snorkelers. This behavior sometimes exhibits itself with a Whale Shark catching a swimmer with its mouth then dragging him or her under water. “When scared, they (Whale Sharks) dive deep and fast. That puts extra stress on their organs,” explained Dr. Rob Davis, director of Utila’s Whale Shark Oceanic Research Center [WHORC].
WHORC Whale Shark engagement guidelines specify that if one boat is close to a Whale Shark it has priority and other vessels have to remain ¼ mile away from the fish. A maximum eight swimmers are permitted around the fish are required to stay away three meters from the Whale Shark’s body and four meters away from its tail.
Nobody is trying to hurt the whale shark. If anything that was an accident,” commented Kevin Dures, Manager at Cross Creek, about the reported incident.
According to Dr. Davis only one or two dive shops on Utila have been regularly ignoring whale shark guidelines, and violating Honduran law. The 16 Utila Dive shops compete fiercely for customers, and market the island as a world famous Whale Shark destination. Lack of respect for Whale Shark encounter guidelines by some dive shops could result in consequences that negatively affect the future of Utila’s entire dive industry. “If they continue to do that, they won’t be in business very long; the Whale Sharks will change their migration patters,” said Dr. Davis.
WSORC’s Whale Shark Encounter Guidelines:
1.The area surrounding a whale shark and a boil of bonito is called the “contact zone.” The contact zone has its origin as the whale shark and extends 100m/300ft, creating a 200m/600ft diameter circle.
2.Only one vessel at a time is permitted within the contact zone. The first commercial vessel within this zone may claim priority by raising the contact zone flag from its mast so that it is visible from 300 degrees. Vessels in queue must remain outside the holding zone which is 1/ 4 mile (400 m) away from the vessel with priority and may not intrude on a contact zone except in an emergency.
3.The contact vessel must approach the whale shark in such a way that the shark’s direction of travel is not obstructed. Under no circumstances are boats to enter the feeding area at more than idle speed. Boats must stay to the side of the feeding area/boil and let the shark approach or have snorkelers swim in.
4.Boats must remain in neutral when whale sharks are within 10m/30ft, or when people are in the water unless it is to maneuver in such a way to prevent harm to both.
5.The contact vessel must maintain a distance of at least l0m/30ft from the whale shark and may not exceed two knots. Priority is lost when the whale shark dives and the boil re-appears more than 1/4 mile (400m) away or when 10 minutes have elapsed. The contact vessel must lower their flag and allow the next boat in queue to establish contact.
6.Only two in-water encounters are allowed per boat except under research circumstances. A research vessel must fly the whale shark research flag in addition to the contact zone flag.
7.Before attempting an encounter, the dive master must read the vessels encounter brief. A maximum of eight snorkelers are allowed in the water at any time and entry must be made as quietly as possible.
8.Snorkelers must maintain a minimum distance of 3m/9ft from the shark. No touching, riding or obstructing the path of a whale shark is permitted.
9.Unless for scientific purposes no person is permitted to enter the water with SCUBA. No flash photography is allowed for any purpose.
10.Local fisherman are not included in the above regulations and may continue to fish the boil without interference. To limit any disturbance to the shark please find another boil if there are already other vessels in queue. [/private]