By Lida Pet-Soede
The sun was still high in the sky as we made our way to the first lift net boat. The fishers, who had been resting after nights of fishing, indicated that there was indeed a whale shark swimming under their platform and got a few bags of small anchovies to feed the whale shark as we plunged into the water.
The whale shark was not bothered at all while we took many pictures and swam slowly with it. Our local WWF team, led by Benny Noor, related how the presence of whale sharks in the Cendrawasih National Park had generated a lot of international attention recently. Cassandra Tania – WWF monitoring officer – explained how the collaboration with renowned whale shark scientist Brent Steward of Hubbs-SeaWorld Research Institute, San Diego, is helping the national park authorities determine how best to protect the whale sharks and manage tourism activities that have sprung up in the past year.
The hype around the possibility of swimming or diving with whale sharks affected me a year ago, when I received a very angry email from a concerned foreign tourist, demanding that WWF immediately step in to protect whale sharks and ensure that whale sharks would not be hurt by the locals and that guests traveling to the area via “live aboard” boats could enjoy encounters with these gentle giants in a well-organized manner.
My local WWF colleagues had been facilitating the resolution of a conflict between the lift net fishers, the communities living in the area, and the live aboard dive operators who had started to give the lift net fishers money in order for tourists to swim around their platforms.
One community member had threatened to kill the whale sharks because the economic benefits of the tourism activities were not being shared with his community—the rightful “owners” of the area where the lift net fishers (mostly temporary fishers from Sulawesi several miles away) operated. The angry community member felt that if his community would not benefit from the whale sharks, then no one else should. More....