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How Madagascar became a haven for whale sharks

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Coming across a whale shark during a casual ocean swim, one could be forgiven for dissolving into a whirlpool of panic and bubbles. However, despite their grand size, and with a silhouette vaguely reminiscent of Jaws, whale sharks are among the gentle giants of our vast oceans.

Gracefully swimming through warm waters, filter-feeding as they go, these magnificent animals are a sight to behold. So put your fear-fuelled misconceptions about sharks aside and marvel at these peaceful, elegant giants.

Unfortunately, whale shark populations are in rapid decline - so sightings are increasingly rare. According to Dr Simon Pierce, co-founder of the Marine Megafauna Foundation (MMF) and principal scientist for research, “[w]hale sharks are a globally endangered species due to overfishing, accidental catches and boat strikes. Major declines in sightings have been seen in Mozambique, where we’ve documented a 79% decline in sightings since 2005, and the Seychelles.”

In Madagascar, however, these sharks appear to have found refuge.

Madagascan waters conceal diverse underwater kingdoms, populated by marine life that cannot be found anywhere else on the planet. From manta rays gliding over shallow reefs, and turtles nestling amongst coral, to huge humpback whales. Omura whales, a rare smaller species related to blue whales, can also be spotted here.

And now juvenile whale sharks are taking advantage of this nutrient-rich environment. MMF, Florida International University, and Mada Megafauna, have just released a study detailing the activities of these animals here. The team photo-identified the sharks and tagged some in order to track their movements. In just one season, 85 different whale sharks were recorded in Madagascan waters.

Nosy Be, a small island paradise in northwest Madagascar, was found to be an increasingly popular feeding ground for the juveniles.

According to Stella Diamant, lead author of this new study and overall project leader, “Whale sharks regularly visit Nosy Be between September and December. That has led to a growing ecotourism industry, as people travel to see and swim with these gigantic, harmless sharks.

"We’re still learning about their population structure and movement patterns, but it’s clear the area is an important hotspot for the species.”

Madagascar emerges as hotspot for endangered whale sharks from MMF on Vimeo.

The research being conducted is not only vital for marine conservation efforts, but will help promote sustainable ecotourism practices and support the Madagascan economy itself. Conservation groups, like MMF, are helping to shape the emerging marine ecotourism industry here, rooting their work in sustainability and conservation, and insisting on local involvement and leadership.

Whale sharks are far from safe, however. Shark fishing and finning is prevalent in Madagascar, and there are only two Marine Protected Areas around Nosy Be in which the animals are under legal protection.

Now that Madagascar has signed the UN Convention on Migratory Species, the country is “obligated to protect the sharks and their migratory habitat in national waters”. As each day passes, the role of this country in the conservation of whale sharks is becoming increasingly important.

Governmental legislation, coupled with local conservation initiatives, is helping to protect these beautiful animals. Visiting Madagascar promises an unforgettable experience with these rare, endangered sharks. However, when you visit, make sure to check that your chosen activity is sustainable and ethical. Help protect these sharks for future generations and support Madagascar’s economy and its local communities in the process.

For more information, check out https://www.madagascarwhalesharks.org/

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