LA PAZ, Mexico – Whale shark swimming is one of the most popular tourist attractions in northwestern Mexico’s Bay of La Paz, although those encounters entail dangers for this massive fish that authorities are trying to mitigate.
During the recently concluded tourist season, “around 62 percent of the whale sharks that visited Bay of La Paz” were injured as a result of tourist activities, Benito Bermudez, regional director of the National Commission of Natural Protected Areas, told EFE.
Several tourist agencies in the northwestern state of Baja California Sur, which occupies the southern half of the Baja California Peninsula, offer excursions that allow visitors to snorkel alongside these slow-moving sharks (Rhincodon typus), the largest-known fish species.
To prevent tourist overexploitation of the area where whale sharks concentrate, authorities have imposed some restrictions.
A maximum of 14 boats are allowed in the concentration area, and a satellite monitoring system has been installed that allows authorities to track the location of the boats in real time.
“This has allowed us to regulate the activity, so that the number of sharks affected would be reduced,” Bermudez said.
During the Dec. 18-Jan. 7 vacation period, around 8,000 people visited the Bay of La Paz to see the whale sharks, which grow to an average length of around 10 meters (nearly 33 feet) and achieve a weight of approximately nine metric tons (20,000 pounds).
Like other so-called carpet sharks, they are known for ornate patterns on their back that resemble carpet designs; whale sharks also are filter feeders that mainly consume plankton and pose no threat to people.
Limits on access to the whale sharks’ feeding grounds are part of the management plan for that area published by the Environment and Natural Resources Secretariat.
Other measures include one requiring swimmers to stay at least two meters (6.5 feet) from a shark’s head and three meters from its tail and another imposing a speed limit on boats of 5.5 kilometers (3.4 miles) per hour in whale shark concentration areas.