Whale sharks earn tourist dollars for the few places in the world where they make regular visits, and they could even do the same for St Helena.
Now rules are being drawn up to make sure the giant but friendly creatures are not harmed by thrill-seekers.
A few lucky tourists got to swim with visiting whale sharks in early 2013, according to the St Helena Wirebird tourism website.
Wikipedia says the creatures are a cornerstone of eco-tourism in tropical regions where they congregate in predictable, seasonal patterns.
“In Thailand, Belize, Utila, and the Yucatan Peninsula, numerous scuba diving and snorkelling tour operators depend on whale sharks for their livelihood,” says the site.
“Healthy populations of the giant fish draw tens of thousands of visitors, and these travellers contribute substantially to the local economies.”
Growing interest has prompted St Helena’s marine conservation unit to issue “basic interaction guidelines” for anyone given the opportunity to swim with them:
- Touching or riding whale sharks is strictly prohibited
- Underwater flash photography is prohibited
- Swimmers must say at least ten feet away
- Divers must not “chase after a whale shark in an aggressive manner”
A policy is being drawn up, and the public will be invited to comment.
The guidance note says: “St Helena has been a safe haven for whale sharks for generations and we would like to ensure that we keep it that way.”
For information, contact Elizabeth Clingham or Dr Judith Brown at the marine conservation unit, part of St Helena Government.