La Paz, Baja California Sur is one of the few destinations in the world regularly visited by whale sharks. These magnificent creatures are the largest fish on the planet and, despite their size (adults can reach up to 65 feet long), they are known locally as pezapo and globally as the gentle giants. Having tiny teeth, whale sharks filter feed, although teeth don’t play a major role in feeding, they suction water into their mouths, food moves through filtering pads that cover the entrance of their gills. The filtering pads are broad mess pads full of millimeter-wide pores that act like a sieve, allowing water to pass through while capturing food particles. Whale shark spend their time just off the coast gleaning plankton and other nourishment from the water. Visitors wanting to see whale sharks up close flock to La Paz, where if you are lucky you can watch from a boat or pop on a snorkel and mask and watch them glide right by you through the water.
While whale sharks are an important attraction for the tourism based economy of La Paz and they are recognized recently in 2016 as endangered species by the IUCN, and under Mexican law as a threatened shark much remains to be done to guarantee their protection. All too often whale sharks show signs of impact from fishing boats, private vessels, or irresponsible tour operators in violation of regulations. Fortunately, La Paz is home to one of México’s leading whale shark researchers and conservationists working on this and other issues, the biologist Dení Ramírez. RED spoke with Dení about her work and the project she leads, Whale Shark México.
RED: How did you get involved with whale sharks?
Dení: My parents were divers, and when they would dive in the Caribbean my brother and I would follow their bubbles on the surface and since then I always wanted to be a biologist. When I came to La Paz to study biology, swimming with whale sharks and manta rays were the best experiences of my life. When I asked a professor for articles about whale sharks he said there weren’t any! That was 12 years ago and since then I am happy to have played a part in generating knowledge and understanding of this species.
RED: Whale shark observation is permitted almost year-round in La Paz. What changes would you suggest?
Dení: In Mexico, La Paz is the only place where whale shark observation is permitted 11 months out of the year. This is excessive in that during certain months when there are only a few whale sharks this increases the pressure on those few. It is important to respect that during the months when there are few whale sharks they need a break from interaction with tourists, based on research data the permitted moths should decrease to 6 or 7 months.
RED: What is one of the biggest challenges for your work?
Dení: Aside from the research we perform with the species, we work in alliance with other organizations, academia, government agencies and the private sector. This presents an enormous challenge, finding synergy between these diverse actors. At the same time, our efforts are showing progress. Working with SEMARNAT and PROFEPA (Mexican environmental agencies) on issues like training and monitoring, and with tour providers, we have seen a reduction in the percentage of injured whale sharks. By doing this work and helping the tour providers become guardians of the species we think we can improve the activity of whale shark observation and reduce the impact on the species.
RED supports Whale Shark México and their important research and conservation work. Take a look at www.whalesharkmexico.com, to read their reports or to support one of their programs. Come see these magnificent creatures for yourself. And remember, always travel with a responsible, permitted operator with an onboard naturalist guide.
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