© Carlos Aguilera

30.03.2022

Mexico: Holiday with whale sharks

In the Gulf of California, whale sharks were a tourist magnet until the pandemic hit. Now tourism is about to restart – with better protection for the creatures.

Reaching lengths of up to 14 metres, whale sharks are the world’s biggest fish. The bay of La Paz, in the Gulf of California, is the perfect place to watch them. Before the COVID-19 pandemic, around 40,000 tourists visited this region in western Mexico each year, many of them taking boat tours to see the whale sharks or even swim with them. Jorge Herrera Real works as a tour guide. ‘The whale shark is a symbol of the La Paz region,’ he says.

Between 2006 and 2020, however, the number of tourist boats increased more than fivefold. The large numbers of visitors were an added problem for the endangered species, with more and more whale sharks colliding with boats and getting injured. The pandemic brought tourism to a grinding halt. However, the resulting downtime offered the chance to embark on a new and more sustainable form of whale shark tourism. For all its negative consequences, the pandemic has therefore created an opportunity to change the way we act after the crisis and enable a green recovery in some areas. And this is exactly what the Deutsche Gesellschaft für Internationale Zusammenarbeit (GIZ) GmbH is supporting. The project is part of an assistance package with which the German Development Ministry (BMZ) is promoting approaches to forward-looking tourism. GIZ is working with the World Wildlife Fund (WWF) in La Paz to achieve this goal.

Animal conservation through transparency

Together, GIZ and WWF want to better protect the habitat of the whale shark and develop a framework that enables whale shark tourism to be re-launched from a much more balanced perspective. They are therefore developing a monitoring system that will provide information on the size and behaviour of the whale shark population. They are also developing a set of rules, with parameters for tourist boats. These include limiting the number of visitors and speed of boats, and introducing a digital registration system for tours. The implementation of these rules will be monitored using checkpoints and cameras.

The project is working with employees from the tourism industry to achieve these objectives. During the pandemic, around 150 of them have been working on a fee basis in conservation areas and helping, for example, to mark out areas with buoys, clean beaches and maintain hiking trails. This enables them to earn money despite the lack of tourists. It also teaches them the dos and don’ts of working alongside whale sharks. This is fundamentally important work, as tour guide Jorge Herrera Real points out: ‘Whale shark tourism works only if it contributes to conserving the population of the fish. We are on the right track, but we need to implement the rules even more rigorously.’