Mexico’s Natural Commission of Natural Protected Areas has launched a set of innovative new policies aimed at safeguarding endangered whale sharks.
Launched in advance of Whale Shark Day (August 30), the new government regulations are also aimed at preserving the magical appeal that attracts visitors each year to swim with the whale sharks each season from May through September.
“As scores of animal lovers discover this unique experience each year, the rising popularity of swimming with whale sharks affects a rising need to protect these special species,” said Dario Flota Ocampo, director of Quintana Roo Tourism Board. “These new restrictions showcase our efforts to promote sustainable tourism practices to conserve the species for future generations.”
Whale sharks can be observed throughout the northern Quintana Roo coast in Holbox, Cancun and Isla Mujeres, where the gentle giants, which can reach up to 40 feet and weigh as much as 15 tons, migrate to feed on plankton and small fish each year.
The Mexican Caribbean has the largest gathering of whale sharks in the world.
Visitors can sustainably see the sharks on tours managed by trained experts including Eco Colors, which led area ecotourism with its first whale shark swims nearly 20 years ago and has partnered with leading organizations including World Wildlife Fund (WWF) and The Nature Conservancy.
Eco Colors tours are led by marine biologists and naturalists, ensuring that swimmers receive expert guidance on their tour.
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Meanwhile, in Isla Mujeres, which is home to the densest concentration of whale sharks, Ceviche Tours averages five to 50 whale sharks on each excursion.
Guides from Ceviche Tours photograph the whale sharks in order to contribute to worldwide sighting, tracking and photo identification efforts.
Strict safety and sustainability guidelines include buddy-system swimming (maximum two people in the water at one time), no touching of whale sharks, a minimum six-feet distance policy, and no flash photography. No more than 10 people are allowed per boat.
As part of the new protective measures, 250 mew compliant vessels have been introduced featuring propeller protectors sourced both locally and from the U.S. and Canada, which will prevent injury and accidents.
The new policies also limit the total number of divers to 80,000 visitors per season. In addition, visitors will be restricted to two dives per person rather than the average of six.
Under the region’s ecotourism standards, the Whale Shark Reserve will be managed for the first time this year under the Mexican Caribbean’s Natural Protected Areas (ANP), ensuring more than ever that dives will be handled responsibly and sustainably.