Kenya is set to become home to a global phenomenon when the East African Whale Shark Trust opens the world’s largest open-water whale shark enclosure.
The project aims to establish whale shark tourism in the country while making a push for the conservation of the giant fish.
Whale sharks are the world’s largest fish and are completely docile creatures.
The EAWST, which has been working on the unique conservation project for the past three years, plans to place two juvenile whale sharks in a sanctuary by November this year.
Visitors will have an opportunity to swim with the whale sharks at a cost of $100 (Sh8,400) per person.
The excursion, which will include marine awareness induction, will last approximately three hours, which includes one hour in the whale shark sanctuary.
The EAWST has set up an enclosure in Waa, which is between Diani and Mombasa on the South Coast.
The enclosure is made of high density woven polythene and will be 100 times the size of the Georgia aquarium in Atlanta, USA, the world’s largest and home to four whale sharks. It includes its own natural coral reef.
The barrier, which will be 500 metres long, will be about 17 metres deep. The EAWST hopes to extend the barrier to 2,000 metres if the Waa community agrees.
The purpose of having a sanctuary is two-tiered. It will generate revenue from tourism that can be re-invested in the conservation of whale sharks through awareness campaigns and establish a research centre and a potential breeding programme.
Revenue will also go directly towards the local community. The EAWST is working closely with Waa’s beach management units and funds will go directly into this.
There are plans to build a marine education centre. The project will also create employment for residents and support fishermen in the area.
Whale shark tourism occurs in various forms around the world. In Mexico, Seychelles and the Philippines, boats follow the sharks and tourists are able to swim with them, though there can be congestion and boat propellers have been known to injure the fish.
In Japan and Georgia (US), whale sharks have been successfully kept in aquariums.
The planned project for Kenya’s whale shark tourism will be different from other models, principally because there are not enough whale sharks on the coast due to targeted fishing.
EAWST founder Volker Bassen says the threat to whale sharks has increased over the years, resulting in a dramatic decline in the population of whale sharks (known locally as papa shillingi) off the coast of Kenya as they are killed for their fins and livers.
In February 2008, a reported 42 whale sharks were killed off Pate Island in just that month.
The fins are sold abroad and their livers are used to make liver oil, which is used to protect wooden boats from ship-worms and other degradation.
In 2005, the EAWST was able to count 58 sharks every 10 days, compared to 2010 when they were only able to spot 12 in six weeks.
Due to this drastic reduction in numbers, an enclosure is necessary to make the tourism venture possible.
Mr Volker said that there would only be two whale sharks in the enclosure at any one time and that they would not be in the sanctuary for more than six months at a time.
There are two whale shark seasons in the year when the fish migrate closer to the coast — September to October and February to March.
These will be the transitional periods in which the EAWST will bring in two whale sharks and release the previous or “old” pair.
Sharks will be chosen by size. Mr Volker said they did not want to start with “big” sharks but rather those which are four or five metres in length.