Meeting Whale Sharks: In Which I Am a Bad Tourist, and Learn Some Important Lessons

As my time in Gorontalo draws to a close, I have been trying to spend as much time as possible with the people who have made my time here such a positive experience, and this includes my students.  After English Club one day, a few students invited me to go with them that weekend to see whale sharks which had been congregating near a village just a little outside of the city.  The decision seemed easy: an opportunity to hang out with my kiddos outside of school and see whale sharks?  Yes, please.

One my site mates regularly dives in Gorontalo, and had told me that the set-up for this whole operation was less than ideal, which is fairly typical for Indonesian tourist attractions (it is still a developing country, after all).  I assumed, therefore, that I would be walking into great disorganization and questionable safety practices.

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My kiddos on their way to see whale sharks for the first time.

I was right.  A haphazard tent was set up for guests to pay for their boats, and while we were required to wear life vests, most of the life vests did not fasten correctly (I think I annoyed some people by insisting that they find ones that did for my kids who couldn’t swim, but I don’t mind annoying people at all when my kid’s safety is at stake).  The ocean looked pretty peaceful at first, which reassured me, but once we past some rocks jutting out into the water, we could see the entire operation, and the chaos was a little terrifying.  Dozens of boats were in the cordoned-off area, with the men rowing them banging on the sides of their vessels, and the folks in the boats taking selfies with one another.  I assumed we wouldn’t see any sharks at all, with everything that was going on, since most animals do not like crowds and noise.

But then a huge, dark shadow passed under my boat.  And then another.  I couldn’t believe it: even with all the commotion, there were still whale sharks.

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A whale shark searching for food from a boat captain.

Of course, this was because they were being fed.  For an additional fee, people could have their boat driver bring a bag of shrimp along with them, to attract the whale sharks to come up close to their boat.  This led to a lot of people screaming when the peaceful giants swam to the surface, and gave people the opportunity to touch them as well. I admit, though I fought with my driver at first, telling him it wasn’t good to touch the sharks (not that I really knew if that was true, but it seemed a good rule), later when more and more people were telling me it was, in fact, fine, I reached out and touched the next one that surfaced on the nose.

There’s a whole lot wrong with this picture.  Even before talking to my site mate afterwards, who knows far more about ocean life than I, and doing a little research of my own, there were some things I knew were not okay.  But there were others I did not figure out until after the fact, and that it not good.

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A young whale shark passing under my boat.

I do want to take a moment to appreciate the beautiful parts of this experience.  Because it really was incredible.  Even though the sharks near the surface were smaller, younger animals, they were still massive.  It will never cease to amazing me that creatures so big eat tiny shrimp and krill, and the way they glide so gently through the water.  To see them in person, and so close, was absolutely amazing.  My girls still talk about it every day: it really is a kind of once-in-a-lifetime opportunity.

But a lot of mistakes were made too.  Some of the mistakes I made were arguably out of my control, and I could not have prevented engaging in them unless I did not go with my students at all (which, quite frankly, might have been something worth considering, but that would need to be weighed against how much my students gained from seeing these majestic creatures in person).  But others could have been prevented if I had been responsible and done research ahead of time.  Lesson learned.

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Whale sharks are known for being incredibly gentle, but this level of comfort with humans could be potentially dangerous.

Do I feel that some improvements should be made to the operation as it stands, so that people can be informed at site as to how to act around these amazing animals, and so that the operation itself is more wildlife-friendly?  Yes, absolutely.  But I also learned, far later than I should have, that I shouldn’t rely on that being the case, and should always do my own research before I go somewhere.

My mother always told me, “Learn from my mistakes, so you can go off and make your own instead of making the same ones as me.”  I’ve always tried to take the same approach with my students, and so I’ve talked about all I’ve learned since going with my English Club, as well as with other students who have heard about our trip.  It doesn’t discourage students from going and seeing the whale sharks themselves, and in many ways I don’t want it to, but I do have students tell me that they won’t feed them, and won’t touch them.  And that’s a start: they’re doing better than I did.

 

For more information about what you should and should not do when going to see whale sharks, check out this site.

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