Hakai Magazine

Coastal science and societies

tourists get close to a whale shark in the Philippines
In Oslob, the Philippines, tour operators lure whale sharks close to shore with a steady stream of shrimp, creating an ethically murky yet lucrative business. Photo by Steve De Neef

A Whale (Shark) of an Ethical Dilemma

Tourists know—and knowingly accept—that animals may be suffering for their wildlife experience.

Authored by

by Jason G. Goldman

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“The concerns which have been raised by others are entirely legitimate,” wrote a user of the travel website TripAdvisor in a review of a controversial whale shark tourism operation in Oslob, the Philippines. “However, it was incredible. … Being so close to these beautiful, amazing creatures was unreal and is a memory we will hold for years to come.”

There are hundreds of whale shark tour companies around the world, but the guides in Oslob offer something special: they guarantee sightings just about every day of the year. As a result, more than 180,000 tourists—almost two-thirds of them from the Philippines—visited in 2015. Yet this boom comes at a cost, one that many tourists seem willing to overlook.

The reason there are so many whale sharks in Oslob is because tour operators there hand-feed them daily. It’s an intensive campaign that has been in place since 2011, and the sharks have taken the bait. They loiter in the water just 50 meters from shore, waiting for the virtually continuous buffet of tiny shrimp.

Nobody knows precisely how the feeding program is affecting the Philippines’ larger whale shark population, but scientists do know that some sharks reliably show up at feeding time every day year-round, says Jackie A. Ziegler, a doctoral candidate in geography at the University of Victoria in British Columbia who led a new study examining tourists’ perceptions of Oslob’s whale shark tours. This is striking, she says, given that whale sharks are typically a highly mobile, migratory species.

A chief concern, says Al Dove, a whale shark biologist at the Georgia Aquarium in Atlanta, is that the sharks will lose their ability to survive on their own in the wild. “That’s the anxiety, that you create an animal that’s very dependent on humans and isn’t able to look after itself,” says Dove, who was not involved in the study.

Yet the tourists who visit Oslob seem to assent to the practice. In a recent scientific review of comments about the whale shark tour companies left on TripAdvisor—–made primarily by the town’s foreign visitors—Ziegler and her colleagues* found that many seem aware of the ethical issues inherent in feeding wildlife. But, of the commenters who referenced ethical considerations in their reviews, more than two-thirds justify their participation as a guilty pleasure.

In other words, Ziegler says, these tourists put their personal interests first, even while knowing the tourism operation is ethically suspect. Indeed, most of these reviews rate the experience with four or five stars, suggesting they would recommend others take part.

Of course, the exact extent to which the baiting practice is morally wrong depends on how you value the different sides of the utilitarian balance sheet.

Biologists don’t know how the Oslob whale sharks interact with the region’s larger whale shark population, meaning it’s hard to say just how detrimental the feeding practices have been to whale sharks overall. Nor do they know for certain how swimming alongside as many as 2,000 tourists each day, while gulping down massive amounts of easily available shrimp, is affecting the sharks’ physiology or behavior.

Likewise, it’s difficult to say whether the positive economic gains from these whale shark tourism operations outweigh the costs to the animals. Wildlife tourism can be a lucrative business. In 2015, whale shark tourism injected some US $5-million into the local economy; prior to instituting the feeding practice, Oslob had no significant tourism industry and no financial incentive to protect the sharks. Wildlife experiences can also, in the right circumstances, turn into conservation dollars, benefiting the animals in turn.

Ziegler says it’s important to take a precautionary approach “to ensure that tourism activities are having the least amount of impact as possible.”

“Especially since these sharks are endangered,” she adds.

Still, if enough tourists who view the practice as unethical continue to support it, it’s unlikely to change, says Dove. “Because there are financial interests in conducting the activity, you need some counterbalance. The only real way is regulatory controls.”

The Philippine government has not yet determined the legality of whale shark feeding, but it has recently begun to explore the matter. According to Ziegler, lawmakers can’t make an informed decision until further research is conducted on the costs to the sharks and the local economy and livelihoods if the practice were outlawed.

In the meantime, Ziegler suggests that tourists looking to support only the most ethical wildlife tourism operations, in Oslob or elsewhere, do some research of their own.

“Before you participate in an activity like this … look into it. Be a more informed tourist, and be careful where you spend your tourist dollars.”

*One of the coauthors on the report is an employee of the Hakai Institute. The Hakai Institute and Hakai Magazine are both part of the Tula Foundation. The magazine is editorially independent of the institute and foundation.