Discovering more about the whale sharks that visit the Maldives is vital in the fight to protect these beautiful animals.

Interview with Richard Rees of the Maldives Whale Shark Research Programme (MWSRP)

1. Can you give us a little background on the history of the project?

The MWSRP actually started out as a standalone research expedition in 2006, funded by the Royal Geographical Society. The team went back the following year to gather more data and we’ve been there in one capacity or another every year since.

2. What is your mission? What do you aim to achieve with the research you are doing? Why is this important?

Our stated mission is to advance the field of whale shark knowledge and to advocate for sound conservation policy in the Maldives. What that means in reality is to build a comprehensive overview of the whale sharks and factors which may impact or threaten them in the Maldives.

A lot of the research we do is built on the collection of very basic data, but is done so in a volume big enough to allow statistical trends on things like growth rates, healing rates and habitat usage questions. In 2013 we launched the “Big Fish Network”, an online portal through which tourism stakeholders around the country could contribute sightings data of whale sharks. We created a mobile app called “Whale Shark Network Maldives” as an output for this information. This year we added a feature to the app which allows people to identify the individual shark they saw then and there!

We now know that South Ari atoll is virtually unique worldwide in hosting a year-round population of whale sharks and that we’re seeing many of the same individuals there year after year (a few of our individual sharks have been seen over a 150 times over a 10 year period). Our work has shown that these sharks move around the atolls and take up temporary residences in other areas of the archipelago. We know the average injury rate of a shark in South Ari atoll and how long it takes for them to heal. The number of tourists visiting the South Ari atoll, their expenditure and their impacts on the sharks are all documented too. So as a tool to provide this kind of information to the decision makers who implement conservation measures, the work done by MWSRP is very important.

3. How do you involve the local community? What is the value of this for the project and for whale shark research and conservation in general?

We attach critical importance to enhancing the knowledge of whale sharks and conservation in the local community. The MWSRP is lucky enough to be based on a local island, Dhigurah, which has a rich whale shark heritage that included national fame for the hunting for whale sharks in bygone times.

The biggest event is the annual whale shark festival, launched in 2012. Up to seven local islands comprising several hundred people come together every year to celebrate the whale sharks of the Maldives. There is a large part for the Maldives younger generation to play in embracing and managing conservation of whale sharks in the future. The field team therefore invest a lot of effort in school visits using art as the basis of learning about the whale sharks and their environment.

These activities also work to promote the sciences and marine conservation as a genuine employment opportunity for the youngsters.. MWSRP has held a rolling six month internship position for Maldivian youth since 2013 which has led to several past members finding work in the field, including two still with the MWSRP team

4. Have you had any “big wins”? What about small ones?

Without doubt the biggest achievement thus far for MWSRP was the organisation’s role in the designation of South Ari atoll Marine Protected Area (S.A.MPA) in 2009. It’s the largest MPA in the country and was founded exclusively for the preservation of the extraordinary whale shark aggregation found there.

Personally one of my proudest moments might seem small but was sitting back and watching the first presentation given by Maldivian MWSRP staff to a local school in their language. Seeing faces light up and hands shooting into the air to ask questions was amazing. These little breakthroughs are exactly what our mission aim is all about.

5. What challenges are you facing?

Where you have a whale shark aggregation and a lot of tourism development in the region you will always have the ingredients for a situation where the number of guests wishing to see the whale sharks ends up putting pressure on them. The MWSRP has found in several studies that proximity of vessels and diver/snorkeller conduct are both much more likely to cause an avoidance reaction from an individual whale shark than a large group of well-disciplined people keeping their distance. So the challenge is to ensure that all stakeholders brief their guests on best practice encounter procedures and enforce them in water as well as mitigate the impact of their vessel. We offer free training on our research vessel and a multitude of free materials for tourists and guides interested in whale shark best practice encounter procedures. The main challenge is high staff turnover and an ever-increasing number of tourism providers, it takes time to embed an ethos of self-regulation.

Read the rest of this article in No.88 Issue 7/2016 of Scuba Diver magazine by subscribing here or check out all of our publications here.

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