The Maldives has taken the first steps towards establishing a protected area for whale sharks. The government-backed initiative is being supported by biologists, diving professionals and representatives of the local community.
For years, the Maldives has been renowned for its whale shark encounters, which, while not as seasonal as those of the Seychelles, occur throughout the atolls during most of the year. Several locations – notably the exposed outer reef of South Ari Atoll – have emerged as whale-shark hotspots and attract boatloads of snorkelers on a daily basis.
Spearheading the move to organize and regulate these encounters is a group of local biologists who have formed the Maldives Whale Shark Research Programme (MWSRP). Since 2006, this group has been investigating the populations and behavior of whale sharks in the Maldives through photo-identification, prey surveys and by taking part in an international genetic analysis and tagging project.
So far, a database of 100 individual sharks has been compiled and is being used to track the movements of these sharks around the atolls. The group is also investigating stories of other whale shark hotspots across the archipelago: it is thought that the sharks journey around the Maldives in order to find seasonal eddies that concentrate their favorite food – zooplankton – into relatively small areas. The long-term plan is to establish protected areas in which snorkeling and boat activity will be controlled, and the sharks will have a refuge from open-ocean fisheries.
A meeting was held at the end of 2008 to consider ways of protecting the sharks and ensuring that all boats conform to a code of conduct.