ATLANTA (August 27, 2015) – On International Whale Shark Day August 30, Georgia Aquarium aims to reduce threats facing the largest known whale shark gatherings off the coast of Mexico near Cancun. Since this area where whale sharks gather was identified in 2006, ecotourism has boomed, creating opportunities for people to experience these majestic animals up close. But these opportunities have created problems as well. Increasingly large numbers of boats operate dangerously close to Mexico’s vulnerable whale sharks and Georgia Aquarium wants to raise awareness about the dangers of the under-regulation of ecotourism near the world’s largest whale shark gathering area.

Known as the Afuera aggregation, this mass gathering of whale sharks occurs east of the tip of the Yucatan Peninsula in the Caribbean Sea. Because these gentle animals swim slowly and filter feed plankton close to the water’s surface, they are in danger of boat strike injuries.

Boat tours based primarily in Cancun and Isla Mujeres offer tourists highly popular whale shark watching experiences. While these tours provide people the opportunity to experience these charismatic and fascinating animals, they also introduce an overwhelming number of boats and snorkelers into the water, which creates a dangerous intersection of propellers that have the potential to cause serious damage. The number of licensed boats has grown from a handful, to more than 250 in 2013 and 280 in 2014. So far in 2015 the number of licensed boats has reached 320. There is a pressing need to reduce this number to more sustainable levels.

Whale shark field research

“Sadly, each year hundreds of whale sharks sustain injuries from boats that cross their paths,” says Dr. Alistair Dove, director of research and conservation at Georgia Aquarium, “but if we can work with the Mexican government and encourage the regulation of whale shark ecotourism activities we can help improve the situation and preserve this extraordinary experience for future generations”. 

A significant number of whale sharks in this population show signs of recent or past boat injury, including scars from propellers that cut the sharks’ backs or dorsal fins. Because this is the world’s largest aggregation of whale sharks, with 300 or more in the same place on some days of the year, they are especially susceptible to harm.

Georgia Aquarium is the only aquarium outside of Asia to care for whale sharks, and has a history of advocating for the welfare of whale sharks in Yucatan Mexico. The Aquarium has launched a letter writing campaign asking the Mexican government for their cooperation in an effort to protect whale sharks from the dangers of their rapidly growing ecotourism industry. There is also much more to learn about the whale shark, which is why in 2008, over 40 whale shark experts at the International Whale Shark Conference in Isla Holbox, Mexico dedicated August 30 to celebrating whale sharks, educating people about them and promoting their conservation.  Georgia Aquarium hosted the 3rd International Whale Shark Conference in 2013, and celebrates International Whale Shark Day every year.

On Saturday, August 29 from 11 a.m. to 2 p.m., the public is invited to Georgia Aquarium for a special Whale Shark Day celebration.  Learn about whale sharks with hands-on activities and see Georgia Aquarium’s whale sharks up close. To learn more about the celebration, issues concerning whale sharks and the booming ecotourism industry in Mexico visit www.georgiaaquarium.org/ProtectWhaleSharks.

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ABOUT GEORGIA AQUARIUM

Georgia Aquarium in Atlanta is a 501(c)(3) non-profit organization that contains more than 10 million gallons of water and has the largest collection of aquatic animals in North America. Georgia Aquarium’s mission is to be a scientific institution that entertains and educates, features exhibits and programs of the highest standards, and offers engaging and exciting guest experiences that promote the conservation of aquatic biodiversity throughout the world. Georgia Aquarium is an accredited member of the Association of Zoos and Aquariums and the Alliance of Marine Mammal Parks and Aquariums. For additional information, visit www.georgiaaquarium.org.