Whale shark sanctuary Maldives part of longest migratory movement in Indian Ocean

Maldives has become a stop in the first and longest migratory movement of whale sharks ever recorded from the Indian subcontinent, cementing the island nation’s position as one of the few destinations in the world for whale shark sightings.

India’s Hidustan Times newspaper reported that an 18-foot female whale shark that set off Sutrapada, off the Saurashtra coast in Gujarat, in December had travelled along the Arabian Sea to reach the Maldives and was now in international waters. Since December 30, it has travelled more than 300 kilometres and is now heading towards the Somalian coast, it added.

It was one of the seven whale sharks fitted with a satellite transmitter, in a study being conducted by the Wildlife Trust of India (WTI). The tags on the other six did not work well and stopped transmitting signals for 40 to 60 days.

“Knowing how this endangered species moves will help us design a more robust conservation and management plan, in collaboration with other countries,” Sajan John, head of marine projects at WTI, was quoted by the newspaper as saying.

Officials from the Wildlife Trust of India tags the 18-foot shark. PHOTO/ HINDUSTAN TIMES

Whale sharks, the largest fish in the world, are year-round residents of the Maldives, tending to favour the western side of the Indian Ocean archipelago from May to December, then heading to the east until April.

There are two main whale shark sighting spots in the nation. The first is the well-known UNESCO Biosphere Reserve of Hanifaru Bay in Baa atoll, while the second is the marine protected area off the coast of Maamigili island in Alif Dhaal atoll, also known as South Ari atoll. The latter in particular is considered a special zone as whale shark sightings take place all year round, unlike Hanifaru Bay where sightings occur in the southwest monsoon.

Sightings of whale sharks have sparked a distinct brand of tourism, luring countless tourists that make brief sojourns to the island nation solely for the pleasure of sighting these majestic creatures. Several resorts and guesthouses in South Ari Atoll organise expert-led excursions that allow guests to dive and snorkel with these creatures.

In the Maldives, there is a admirable research programme carried on by the Maldives Whale Shark Research Programme to find out more about whale sharks. They identify the sharks by looking at their spot pattern which is unique to every individual, like a human fingerprint.

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