Tourists are flocking to the coastal waters of Tan-awan, on the southern Philippines island of Cebu to swim with whale sharks, the world’s largest fish.
Tan-awan never used to see tourists. But the sharks have brought a measure of prosperity to what used to be a sleepy village. Fishermen lure them to the Tan-awan coastline by hand-feeding them shrimp. The locals profit by acting as guides or boat pilots for eco-tourists. Most days, several hundred tourists come to see or swim with the big fish, paying about $12 to be taken out to see them and about three times that much to swim with them.
Some biologists decry the human-fish interaction, saying it could lead to abnormal whale shark behavior, such as aggression between them, and the spread of disease and parasites among animals brought closer together than they would typically be naturally.
“Some people are asking that we stop feeding, but if we stop feeding, what is our livelihood?” asks Ramonito Lagahid, an official with the local fishermen’s association.
Habituation of wild animals leads to situations like what happened to a dolphin named Beggar (ANIMAL POST “Beggar” Feb. 10, 2013) who became habituated to humans in the Intracoastal Waterway in Florida in the U.S.. Beggar died prematurely. An autopsy revealed he was underweight and dehydrated—possibly because he was not eating a normal dolphin diet.
The International Union for Conservation of Nature classifies the whale shark as “vulnerable,” but the total population is unknown.