Whale shark research – assessing tourism impacts

Using technology akin to a ‘fitbit’ for sharks, a team of researchers has tagged and tracked whale sharks to study the effects of tourism at Ningaloo Reef in Western Australia for the first time.

In a resounding endorsement of local tourism practices, the research found the activity of boats and divers has minimal impacts.

While there was evidence of some increases in activity levels and directional changes by the sharks when tourists were swimming with them, each shark’s exposure was very limited.

The research, published in Journal of Sustainable Tourism, involved physically tagging whale sharks with biotelemetry devices –  animal-borne, electronic devices that record data – for the first time, rather than relying on observations.

“We used biotelemetry to look at whale sharks’ movement and behaviour in the presence or absence of tourists,” Dr Brad Norman AM, research fellow at Murdoch University’s Harry Butler Institute and director of marine research at not-for-profit ECOCEAN, said.

“We found that tourism encounters lasted for just over an hour and swimming with tourists increased the activity levels of larger sharks – those over seven metres – but not smaller sharks.”

“However, we know from photo-identification records, that most sharks are only seen on three or fewer days per year at Ningaloo, so each individual’s exposure to tourism is really limited.”

Dr Norman is a WA Park Ambassador.

Dr Samantha Reynolds, who led the study as part of her PhD at The University of Queensland, said that exposure presented only a small fraction of each shark’s day.

“Given they only spent an average of 62 minutes swimming with tourists, that’s about 4% of their whole day, so any increases in energy it requires would be a relatively small proportion of their daily energetic costs,” Dr Reynolds said.

“Although interactions with humans like these are likely to impact wildlife to some degree, if well-managed like the Ningaloo whale shark tourism industry, wildlife tourism can be sustainable for the operators and tourists, and for the animals as well.”