Mafia starts whale shark sighting tourism

By MASEMBE TAMBWE, Tanzania Daily News
26 August 2011.

Mafia Marine Park authorities have started promoting the whale shark following increased sightings and numbers within the park in recent times. Their General Management Plan has been updated making the whale shark an attraction.

”The increased sightings have prompted us into revising our plans,” the Park’s Warden in Charge, Mr George Msumi said recently. Whale sharks are the biggest fish in the ocean.

They breathe water through gills and get their name from their large size and ability to feed on plankton like whales. They measured up to 14 metres in length, but estimates for maximum size are upwards of 18 metres.

Speaking during an exclusive interview recently, Mr Msumi said that thanks to the sharks, more revenue has been realised from park entrance fees, as a total amount of 420,895,100/- was netted in 2009/10 from 4,146 visitors.

”This has been a major milestone. The marine park officially started ten years ago. We collected 8m/- from in gate fees in the first year and climbed to 420m/- in 2009/10, thanks to intensive efforts,” he said.

So far, two diving facilities have already been installed within the marine park premises largely because many visitors enjoy swimming alongside these friendly creatures and the park is ideal for snorkelling.

Mr Msumi said that recently they attainted a record sighting of 37 whale sharks swimming in one area at a time though the total number of sharks is impossible to determine because of their migratory nature.

Whale sharks have been sighted in Mafia for many years but it is only recently that they have been getting international attention.

A research project that was started four years ago is currently being conducted by the Shark Research Institute (RSI) located in the United States where 72 sharks were tagged and identified.

”The aim of the research is to determine the population structure, whale shark behaviour and migration patterns,” Mr Msumi said.

According to preliminary findings, the whale sharks in Mafia are not resident fish thanks to the satellite tracked tags. When plankton is at scarce the fish travel to Mozambique, Kenya, Somalia, India, the Far East and back.

Findings also showed that whale sharks tend to spend more time in Mafia than other places largely because near Rufiji there is place where fresh water blends with ocean water resulting in an abundance of plankton and vegetation.

A founder of the Whale Safari, Mr Liberatus Mokoki, who has been taking tourists to see the fish since 2009, said that out of experience, whale shark watching is best between November and January and between May and July.

He added that sightings are normally difficult. ”There are more sightings between November and January because the winds are less fierce and shark whales are seen outside the marine park area as there is more food. They also love sand dunes but dislike coral reefs,” he explained.

Citing the case of Mozambique where whale sharks are referred to as black gold, Mr Mokoki said the government should think of promoting the fish. He added that this could start with the introduction of watching by using helicopters and boats.

He said that taking into consideration the fact that the government now earns 15 US dollars for every tourist who goes to watch the fish there is need for greater investment and promotion.

”As the government prepares to invest in the venture, there is also a need for it to enlighten fishermen and get them to understand the importance of the fish,” he said.

He explained that whale sharks have the tendency of moving with schools of smaller fish and that fishermen usually catch them together with lesser fish.

Mr Mokoki said that whale sharks have a slimy protective gel that protects them against bacterial infection and that whenever they are eased out of fishing nets, the gel scraps off from their bodies putting them at risk.

He said that there was dire need for the government to devise a mechanism of controlling the number of boats in the waters especially at night to avoid accidents that affect the large fish.

Source: Daily News – Tanzania


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