On the South Coast of Kenya in the village of Waa, which lies between Diani and Mombasa, the first Open Water Aquarium for Whale Sharks is in the process of being created.

The initiator of this project is the East African Whale Shark Trust (EAWST) and the enclosure is set to be 100 times larger than the Whale Shark Aquarium in Georgia, Atlanta, which is currently the largest in the world, keeping 4 whale sharks. By March 2013, visitors will be able to admire the beauty of two juvenile whale sharks that will swim in an open area which is 2,000 meters in length, 600 meters wide, with an average 14 meters in depth. The enclosure will be made by high density Polyethylene fiber that prevents entanglement.

For 100 U$ each, visitors will be allowed to swim with the whale sharks. The excursion will last 3 hours in total, inclusive of lectures about whale shark biology, research and the protection of the seas, with 1 hour being reserved for swimming with the whale sharks themselves.

The project shall not only aim to raise funds for the protection of the whale sharks but also the start of a research station along with the possibility of a future breeding program. (Vision 2030)

Volker Bassen, founder of the EAWST, explains the basic aspects and goals of the protection area: “The project will be put to practice together with the local community who will benefit financially. Communities where whale sharks are currently killed will get a share of the revenues from this project, in exchange for giving up the hunt of whale sharks.”

A few top researchers will participate with very keen interests in different research projects. The Sanctuary will also combine a rescue and rehabilitation center for injured marine animals, a first in Africa.

But why an enclosure and not whale shark-watching with freely living whale sharks?

The answer is very simple: there are hardly any free living whale sharks found in Kenya these days. The EAWST during its tagging expedition in 2006 sighted 58 whale sharks in 14 days, however in 2012 this had dropped to 12 sharks spotted in 6 weeks.

The reason: Whale sharks are being hunted in Kenya, specifically because of the oil from its liver which is used by the locals to impregnate their boats as a protection against shipworm. After other shark stocks were exhausted the fishermen started to hunt whale sharks, whose catch is very lucrative because of its big liver. Even regarding the catch quotas the decline of the population is visible: From 42 catches in 2008 the quota declined to 14 in 2012.

Other funds from the project will be used to import machinery from India to start the manufacturing and distribution of cashew nut shell oil, an alternative to shark liver oil that was developed in India in and has spread all along the Indian coastline as far as the Gulf of Arabia. This alternative oil cost a third of the price compared to shark liver oil, lasts 2 seasons instead of one and doesn’t stink.

The whale sharks kept in the sanctuary will be released back to the open sea after 6 months and will be under supervision for 7 days a week all around the clock. “At first sign of stress the shark will be released,” Bassen assures.

Bassen expresses an objection to critics stating that such protection areas are very common on land and the only reason why there are still elephants in Kenya, due to similar projects. Without the revenues from the protected areas there would be no security for the elephants. This is only one example out of many.

“Use them or lose them – this is very sad but also very true “unfortunately” whether you like it or not,” according to Bassen.

Contact: Volker Bassen
                East African Whale Shark Trust

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