After saying our goodbyes to the lovely people of the MaRHE centre and many of the locals of Magoodhoo who came to watch our boat leave, we made our way to Dhigurah, a few hours north. Dhigurah is an inhabited island with several resorts and hotels where whale sharks are known to be year-round residents. Here, we would join Island Divers in hope of observing whale sharks and Manta rays and the tourism to which much of the Maldivian economy relies on.
The Maldives is a SIDS undergoing rapid development of it’s tourist industry for the last 35 years, altering the land use of numerous islands. Tourism began with two resorts opening by the private sector in 1972, followed by 3 more in the next decade, concentrated on islands close to the airport and Malé. Resorts have now expanded to 109, built on uninhabited islands acting as an autonomous unit, with only one allowed per island to help prevent negative environmental impacts. Visitor numbers have grown from 1062 per year in 1972, to over 1 million in 2013 and continue to rise. The rich biodiversity and seascapes are essential for tourism, attracting snorkelers and divers, the main contributor to Maldivian economy, providing more than 30% of GDP. However, a desire to meet tourist demand with the ever-increasing popularity of the Maldives may have damaging consequences for the delicate ecosystems if they are not sufficiently protected.
We set off early morning, with the Dive Team soon letting us know that a whale shark had been spotted in Fen Maa Dhigurah, the Maldives’ first and largest marine protected area (MPA), and that we were heading to the site. We were all very excited but a little apprehensive as we had heard how tourist boats often end up overcrowding and chasing the whale sharks.
Suddenly we could see numerous boats, with more coming, so I guessed that we had arrived. With a few sharp turns we were told to jump of the back and into the water, the Dive Team pointing and telling us where to swim as the whale shark was just there! It was very chaotic as everyone rushed to grab their snorkels and fins before jumping off the back. I didn’t really know where to look but quickly poked my head underwater – and this HUGE (although it turned out to actually be quite a little one), gorgeous whale shark was pretty much right underneath us. I was sort of stuck in awe for a moment as I watched this gentle giant glide through the water with such ease.
This incredible moment didn’t last as I was shoved and pushed aside – I realised that our small group had been joined by many other tourists as several boats surrounded the area. Many of them couldn’t swim properly, relying on life jackets and everyone seemed desperate to get a picture. So much so that several of us were kicked hard. I decided to let the group swim away, feeling very shocked and sad.
Tourism, and “ecotourism“, to which the Maldives relies heavily upon, is not without fault. The whale sharks come to this area to feed as this is where their plankton prey accumulate. All dive operators in the area know this. Arushad from Island Divers has assured me that whale sharks don’t seem to have a problem with the tourists unless people block their way, touch or harass them. Island Divers is very reputable and have guides that keep groups in control but quite often there can be diving operators with tourist groups containing different sorts of guests (such as those who cannot swim properly) and therefore they become difficult to control. Tourism has been shown to alter whale shark behaviour and may have impacts on entire ecosystems.
However, many organisations are working towards becoming more environmentally friendly. The Maldives Whale Shark Research Programme, (MWSRP) collect data on every whale shark seen including taking measurements and identification, with an aim to understand population dynamics. While we were there, MWSRP was working with Island Divers. There is hope that if more organisations become more environmentally concerned, negative impacts on whale shark communities will be minimised while the Maldivian economy benefits from the country’s incredible animals.
We clambered back onto the boat with mixed feelings but ready for our next destination: Manta Point. Here, Manta rays gather from deeper depths of the ocean to feed and allow cleaner fish to free them of parasites. If we were qualified we were allowed to SCUBA dive which was an added bonus! We descended in small groups, letting the current take us to Manta Point. There was no guarantee the Mantas would be there, but they did not disappoint as out of the blue one flew over our heads, with a giant wing span of 3-4m.
As we reached Manta Point, 3 were quite happily feeding, majestically gliding only a few metres away! This was one of the most incredible experiences of my life.
However, again our group was not alone. I purposely didn’t film the small crowd gathered at the ridge although you can spot a few snorkelers at the surface. This didn’t seem as bad as the whale shark encounter as no one was chasing the Mantas and we were all told to stay behind a certain point and observe.
This experience taught me a lot about ecotourism and what to think about when visiting somewhere like the Maldives. Ecotourism has the potential to teach people more about components of an ecosystem and ways to conserve them, increasing environmental awareness, in addition to scientists gathering valuable biological information. This can also improve the local economy, as seen in the Maldives, and push for more MPAs. Yet the future of ecotourism in the Maldives is uncertain. Ecotourism may also cause habitat degradation as it is specifically designed to take tourists to delicate environments – we observed tourists standing on coral reefs and crowding the whale sharks. The boats used to get to these destinations may also hit animals such as turtles and whale sharks or drop anchor on coral reefs. Organisations such as Island Divers and MWSRP must be encouraged as well as stricter environmental laws and enforcement to ensure sustainable tourism that benefits both the Maldivian people and the fragile ecosystems to which they rely upon.