One of the most regal creatures I’ve had the great good fortune to be near is a whale shark. Yesterday was a day of snorkeling in the Maldives on a whale shark excursion. The whale shark is the largest fish in the ocean–up to 60 feet long–and they are gentle vegetarians, straining massive amounts of water through their gill system for plankton.
The Maldives is one of the rare areas on the planet with a year round population of whale sharks–most migrate great distances and are constantly on the move. Because of this, the area is also one of the premier research regions for the “threatened” (but not yet officially endangered) species. The only real predators they have are, of course, us. People kill them and lop off the dorsal fins for Chinese shark fin soup. They are so mysterious, and so rarely studied at length, very little is known about their mating habits, reproduction, and behavior except when they are in close proximity to humans (and therefore most vulnerable).
The Maldives Whale Shark Research Programme (MWSRP) is a charitable organization here in the Maldives, based out of the Conrad Maldives Rangali Island. The Conrad resort sponsors the research as well as the researchers, providing housing and board at the resort, a research vessel, and logistical support (plus access to the resort amenities) for two shifts of scientists each year: 3 months in the spring and 2 months in the winter. Visitors to the region can volunteer with the research team (especially helpful are certified scuba divers) as they advance the science and conservation efforts. Others can volunteer for programs that inspire greater understanding and protection efforts among the local Maldivian community. The South Ari Atoll, where the research is carried out, is also now the Maldives’ largest Marine Protected Area (also realized with the Conrad resort’s support).
If you’re not hopping on over to the Maldives any time soon (it’s a giant hop, I assure you), you can donate here. The juvenile female we swam with yesterday was only about 18 feet long–and I dreamt about her all last night, and can almost guarantee I’ll do so again tonight. Trust me–it will not be OK if the whale sharks degrade further and get placed onto the endangered species list. We simply cannot allow that to happen.