Article author Karen Douthwaite is WWF’s Senior Program Officer for the Mesoamerican Reef.

snorkeling with a whale shark

Snorkeling with a whale shark. © Michael Gunther/WWF-Canon

They measure 40 feet, weigh more than 20 tons and can have a lifespan of more than 100 years. But to ensure that whale sharks continue to live out their full lives in the world’s oceans, all of us, including travelers, have important roles to play.

Most years, between June and September, one of the largest aggregations of the world’s largest fish is found around Isla Mujeres, a small island off Mexico’s Yucatan Peninsula. Several years ago, WWF’s Mesoamerican Reef program worked with local fishermen who were taking tourists out to see and swim with the whale sharks. WWF helped develop guidelines for operators participating in whale shark tourism.

Since then, the Yucatan’s whale shark tourism industry has grown tremendously, increasing from just a few hundred tourists a year to more than 12,000 annually. This puts more and more pressure on the whale shark population.

In coordination with Mexico’s Natural Protected Areas Agency and university student volunteers, we are trying to promote awareness of good environmental practices in whale shark tourism among the travelers themselves through a public campaign focused in Cancun, which is where the majority of travelers go on whale shark excursions.

“With such a sharp increase in tourists coming to visit the whale sharks, it is very important that people are aware of the rules for visiting them. ”

-Judith Morales 
Strategic Projects Coordinator, WWF Mesoamerican Reef Program

During whale shark season, volunteers were stationed at three marinas and two business centers for most of the week, distributing informational materials and talking with more than 2,000 travelers about what they should and should not do when visiting the whale sharks. The suggestions include booking tours through authorized operators, keeping a certain distance away from the whale sharks when in the boat and in the water and not removing any marine life or plants from of the ocean.

Additional volunteers will carry the message to tourists in Tulum and Playa del Carmen, and WWF is producing a video to air at transit stations and dive shops in Cancun.

If you are fortunate enough to see and swim with whale sharks in Mexico or anywhere in the world, remember to use best practices listed in this article and in the slideshow below.

Support responsible whale shark tourism by traveling with NHA and WWF to swim with the whale sharks.

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