Shark enthusiasts for whom a nature film or marine aquarium doesn’t find adventure enough can immerse themselves in the natural habitats of these fish in countries such as Mexico, South Africa and the Philippines for a few hundred euros.
Providers of these diving adventures like to present themselves as suppliers of ethical tourism or ecotourism. But a new British study shows that animals may suffer from the presence of tourists. The researchers wrote in the journal that sharks appear to display erratic behavior more often when humans swim alongside them Scientific reports.
In ecotourism, the idea is not to disturb nature, but rather to contribute, if possible, to the protection and restoration of nature. For example, swimming with sharks would improve the image of sharks, making people more likely to donate or stop eating shark fin soup. But in the meantime about $300 million is earned annually from this activity, while the question is often whether sharks profit from it.
For the new research, scientists from Imperial College London, among others, traveled to the coast of Mexico to use drones to zoom in on whale sharks, the largest fish species in the world. They had a diver swim with the sharks. Using artificial intelligence, the researchers analyzed the images and compared the sharks’ swimming behavior with and without human company.
Sharks appear to swim faster and make sharper turns closer to the swimmer, a behavior that animals display when they feel trapped. Fish that eat plankton waste so much energy that they need more food – which is not always available. This could put further pressure on the population, while the whale shark is already threatened worldwide. Other shark species are also facing difficult times: a third of them are on the verge of extinction.
More research is needed
“This research makes good use of relatively new technologies, such as drone imagery and artificial intelligence,” says biologist Anne Grundlehner of Wageningen Marine Research, who was not involved in the new study. However, more research is needed to find out if whale sharks are actually suffering, Grundlehner says.
Think of it this way: If a stranger comes by with a bike and you don’t want him, bike a little faster to get rid of him. Does it just happen once? Then you won’t have much trouble with that. But if you bike a 40-mile faster kilometres, that has such a big impact on your energy expenditure that you’d have to eat all that energy back in. It’s not yet clear how much impact human swimmers will ultimately have on energy expenditure or the survival of sharks.
Zombie specialist. Friendly twitter guru. Internet buff. Organizer. Coffee trailblazer. Lifelong problem solver. Certified travel enthusiast. Alcohol geek.