Ningaloo Reef runs along Australia’s west coast, a long way from anywhere. There are a few small towns dotted along the coast but between them are great swathes of basically nothing, just termite mounds and scrubby desert plants.
We were staying in Coral Bay, which boasts a population of fewer than 300 permanent residents. There are a number of things which draw people to the area, including the gorgeous beach, snorkelling and fishing on the reef. We, like thousands of other visitors every year, travelled there in search of the whale sharks.
For me, ‘ecotourism’ always comes with a touch of guilt. After all, tourists? Not the best for the environment. Just look at the baby dolphin that washed up in Argentina earlier this year – it died as a result of the enthusiasm of a crowd of beachgoers. Even in less extreme cases, tourists crush plants, disturb animals and bring rubbish, weeds and excessive infrastructure. In the Coral Bay general store, warnings had been posted everywhere, telling boaters to look out for wildlife. Accompanying the message was an image of a manta ray’s wing, lacerated by a boat’s propeller.
Still, Ningaloo’s doing pretty well on that front. Australia has strict legislation to protect our environment. In particular, there are a lot of rules about the sharks.
Diving with them is an utterly extraordinary experience. They are out deep, where even in the extraordinarily clear water, we would look down and not see anything but dark blue. It’s a highly coordinated affair. Only 10 swimmers are allowed in the water with the whale shark at a time, so while one group was in the ocean, the other would line up on the back of the boat and be dropped off further ahead of the animal. Our shark swam fast enough that it took a bit of effort to keep up, but we hardly noticed. He seemed so calm and gentle and we were captivated.
People aren’t allowed to go closer than three metres from the body of the shark and four metres from the tail. They aren’t allowed to swim in front of the animals, not for fear of being harmed – whale sharks are filter feeders, they don’t even have teeth – but to avoid startling them. No one is allowed to touch the whale shark. Without these rules serious harm could be done. In the Philippines, tourists can also swim with whale sharks. Certain things I had heard about the process there didn’t make a ton of sense. Namely, they guarantee seeing a shark. Always.
This isn’t really something you can do with wild animals. The tour companies in Ningaloo try their best, offering a free trip out if a whale shark isn’t spotted on the first one, but they can’t do much more than that. It’s not a zoo, as one of the tour guides told us. If the animals aren’t there, they aren’t there.
We asked if any of the crew knew what went on with the sharks in the Philippines. They did.Turns out, the staff there feed the whale sharks every day, in order to encourage them to stay in the same place. This is problematic on many levels, as it disrupts the natural behaviour of the whale sharks and affects the ecosystem surrounding them. Prue, the photographer on our tour, told us that while she herself had not been swimming there, she had seen the whale sharks and they all appeared skinny – hardly surprising when you think that people would have to provide enough plankton for animals that weigh literally tons. In attempting to do so, another crew-member told us, they also take a lot of food out of the ecosystem that other species rely on. Obviously this is terrible but the situation surrounding ecotourism is deeply complicated. Because if the choice is between the natural environment being imperfectly preserved or destroyed altogether, then there is no question which option is preferable.
Flores, an island in Indonesia, has exceptionally beautiful coral reefs. The name of the place means ‘flowers’, which should give some idea of the stunning variety of shapes and colours that occur. But the people of the island are very poor. They are primarily subsistence farmers, surviving on what they can grow and catch. The forests are eerily quiet, birds having become rare as a result of hunting, so it’s a wonder that the reefs haven’t been stripped as well.But the thing is, they are very popular with tourists. There is surprisingly little traffic from Australia but many Europeans travel there. Therefore, the reefs are profitable and worth keeping the way they are.
However, there isn’t enough regulation to keep them perfectly maintained. For example, in Ningaloo, there are permanent anchors so boats don’t need to drop their own. While snorkelling in Flores, I swam past our boat’s anchor, which was sitting by a particularly beautiful bit of coral. It was sheer luck that the coral wasn’t damaged when the anchor was dropped. For the Indonesian reefs to remain in their current condition, more regulation of the area is desperately needed. But as damaging as tourism can be, it is also part of the reason the reefs are still there at all.
The proposal to dredge near the Great Barrier Reef is in part monstrous because we as a nation don’t need to do it – it’s an example of shortsighted greed. In economically developing nations, however, the situation is not always so clear. If a community living in abject poverty sees an opportunity to make money from an activity that harms the environment, we in richer countries an hardly judge them. But it’s certainly a hell of a lot better if the environment can be made profitable as it is. It’s great for us here to talk about preserving ecosystems for their own sake and for the sake of future generations but given that not every community has that luxury, an economic approach might be the best we can do for the moment.