Kenya is set to become home to a global phenomenon when the East African Whale Shark Trust opens the world’s largest open-water whale shark enclosure.
The project aims to establish whale shark tourism in the country while making a push for the conservation of the giant fish.
Whale sharks are the world’s largest fish and are completely docile creatures.
The EAWST, which has been working on the unique conservation project for the past three years, plans to place two juvenile whale sharks in a sanctuary by November this year.
Visitors will have an opportunity to swim with the whale sharks at a cost of $100 (Sh8,400) per person.
The excursion, which will include marine awareness induction, will last approximately three hours, which includes one hour in the whale shark sanctuary.
The EAWST has set up an enclosure in Waa, which is between Diani and Mombasa on the South Coast.
The enclosure is made of high density woven polythene and will be 100 times the size of the Georgia aquarium in Atlanta, USA, the world’s largest and home to four whale sharks. It includes its own natural coral reef.
The barrier, which will be 500 metres long, will be about 17 metres deep. The EAWST hopes to extend the barrier to 2,000 metres if the Waa community agrees.
The purpose of having a sanctuary is two-tiered. It will generate revenue from tourism that can be re-invested in the conservation of whale sharks through awareness campaigns and establish a research centre and a potential breeding programme.
Revenue will also go directly towards the local community. The EAWST is working closely with Waa’s beach management units and funds will go directly into this.
There are plans to build a marine education centre. The project will also create employment for residents and support fishermen in the area.
Whale shark tourism occurs in various forms around the world. In Mexico, Seychelles and the Philippines, boats follow the sharks and tourists are able to swim with them, though there can be congestion and boat propellers have been known to injure the fish.
In Japan and Georgia (US), whale sharks have been successfully kept in aquariums.
The planned project for Kenya’s whale shark tourism will be different from other models, principally because there are not enough whale sharks on the coast due to targeted fishing.
EAWST founder Volker Bassen says the threat to whale sharks has increased over the years, resulting in a dramatic decline in the population of whale sharks (known locally as papa shillingi) off the coast of Kenya as they are killed for their fins and livers.
In February 2008, a reported 42 whale sharks were killed off Pate Island in just that month.
The fins are sold abroad and their livers are used to make liver oil, which is used to protect wooden boats from ship-worms and other degradation.
In 2005, the EAWST was able to count 58 sharks every 10 days, compared to 2010 when they were only able to spot 12 in six weeks.
Due to this drastic reduction in numbers, an enclosure is necessary to make the tourism venture possible.
Mr Volker said that there would only be two whale sharks in the enclosure at any one time and that they would not be in the sanctuary for more than six months at a time.
There are two whale shark seasons in the year when the fish migrate closer to the coast — September to October and February to March.
These will be the transitional periods in which the EAWST will bring in two whale sharks and release the previous or “old” pair.
Sharks will be chosen by size. Mr Volker said they did not want to start with “big” sharks but rather those which are four or five metres in length.
Since the only whale sharks seen frequently along the coast are male, those in the enclosures will therefore always be “juvenile, immature males.”
Guests will be collected from a beach near the Indian Ocean Beach Club in Diani and, following an introductory talk on whale sharks, be taken across on a 20-minute boat ride to the sanctuary.
The number of visitors will be restricted. Two groups of five people each will be taken to opposite sides of the sanctuary by a trained diver.
Mr Volker estimated that there would be 40 to 50 visitors every day.
The sanctuary will be a heavily protected area and therefore good for diving. A no-fishing zone has been set up within the sanctuary, making it a safe haven for marine life.
Eventually, it will become a fish nursery which will benefit local fishermen in the area as fish move out of the breeding ground.
A coral transplant project will be also be implemented, creating a new reef within the sanctuary.
As part of conservation efforts, the EAWST will start a programme to re-educate local fishermen on environmentally friendly fishing methods.
Fish attraction devices (FADs) will be distributed, specifically intended to attract Dorado fish, and a private fishing cooperation will be established to enable the fishermen to sell their catch of Dorado to European markets, where it is hugely popular.
Mr Volker stressed the importance of the fish’s welfare. He said rotating the fish every six months would ensure they do not spend their lives in captivity provide an opportunity for observation of several different animals.
Catching the whale shark is a tough task which will be undertaken by the EAWST team.
The whale sharks will be caught by the tail with a padded tail-rope to avoid injuries, a technique the organisation has practised several times.
Once caught, four 15kg buoys will be placed in the water to keep the shark from swimming away and once tired it will fall into a state of tonic immobility, an involuntary defence mechanism which resembles a trance.
Once in a trance, a harness, attached to an inflatable buoy, will be placed around the shark and it will then be dragged into the sanctuary.
It has been proven that some whale sharks are highly migratory, travelling up to several thousands of miles every year.
However, a EAWST research showed that only 30 per cent of Kenyan whale sharks travelled far — to the Seychelles, Somalia and Tanzania — while 70 per cent stayed along the Kenyan coastline all year round.
This makes them much more vulnerable to over-fishing than previously thought.
Being a slow-moving filter feeding fish, the whale sharks, only move to take advantage of high zooplankton levels in various tropical seas around the equator.
The EAWST have monitored the flow of the current and temperature of the water at the sanctuary site for a year and have devised a feeding plan with the help of scientists at the Georgia aquarium in America.
Veterinary expertise will be provided by Dr Keiicho Sato and his team from the Shurami aquarium in Japan.
The “menu” will be finalised once the weight of the animal is determined and a plankton trawler will be used to feed them.
The project has, however, not been without its share of controversy. Mr Volker says it has cost him a “great deal of blood, sweat and tears”.
“Rumours started and people spread lies,” said Mr Volker, who has been determined to keep the project “under the lid”.
For example, in 2010 he was embroiled in a debate over the project that precipitated a series of scandalous emails which included allegations that the project aimed to trap a baby whale shark in a small cage where the depth of the water at low tide is approximately five feet deep, claims which Mr Volker vehemently denied.
The allegations went on to suggest that the EAWST had misused funds for the purchase of a micro-light aircraft and a boat for fishing trips.
Mr Volker said “EAWST gets little to no external funding” and that everything has come from their “own pockets”.
The revenue brought in by the project is expected to rectify these financial issues and help efforts to protect the threatened whale sharks.
With the construction of the new Lamu Port, there has been debate over the environmental impact on the Kenyan coast with the future of these gentle giants looking particularly bleak.
The new venture into whale shark tourism could offer Kenya’s coast a new way of approaching marine conservation.