By Joe Kiarie

Two decades ago, a Hollywood film, Free Willy, brought the plight of captive whales to the world’s attention.

The movie shaped public ideas about holding such large water mammals in aquariums or marinas.

The strength of such ideas among Kenyans could soon be tested as plans to approve a controversial new attraction reach an advanced stage.

The Government is considering approving a unique ‘sea aquarium’ that will see holidaymakers swim alongside whale sharks in the Indian Ocean. Despite their name, whale sharks, the world’s largest fish species, are completely docile.

The project is the brainchild of Seaquarium Ltd, which plans to establish the million-dollar project at the Waa Whale Shark Sanctuary in Kwale County. Two young male whale sharks will be enclosed in an underwater polyethylene net measuring 2,000 metres by 600 metres for six months during which time tourists can snorkel with the giant fish for Sh15,360 ($120) an hour. Visitors will be served in groups of 10, with about 40 to 50 individuals enjoying the experience daily, with the help of trained divers. Every six months, captured whale sharks will be released and two more brought in to replace them.

Divided opinion

With the country already world famous for the ‘Big Five’ – lions, elephants, buffalos, leopards and rhinos – proponents say the venture will provide tourists with a unique charm.

The idea of keeping wild whale sharks in captivity for public display has, however, outraged ecologists, who say it will taint Kenya’s image as a responsible tourist destination.

Bassen Volker, the founder of the East African Whale Shark Trust behind the project, says the venture pairs conservation and tourism. He contends whale sharks are vanishing from the Kenyan coast due to overfishing. Fishermen catch the giant sea fish using jarife (whale nets) and extract precious liver oil, which is used to protect wooden fishing boats from shipworm infestation.

“We boil its liver and use the oil on our boats. We do not eat it because it is poisonous,” said Kasena Magandji, a Malindi fisherman, when asked why they had killed a whale shark that lay lifeless beside him.

Volker says the sanctuary will raise funds to help conserve whale sharks. “We will use part of proceeds from the sanctuary to import machinery from India to extract and distribute cashew nut shell oil to the fishermen. The shell oil is as effective as the liver oil protecting boats and will be a nice alternative that will save sharks,” he told The Standard on Saturday.

The diving consultant says the project will make Kenya a uniquely unrivalled tourism destination.

“Kenya will be the only country in the world where one can swim with the world’s biggest fish (the whale shark) in the morning and watch or even play with the largest animal (the elephant) in the afternoon. This is an unbeatable combination,” he says.

Currently, opportunities to swim with captured whale sharks are only available at the Georgia Aquarium in the United States and Okinawa Island in Japan, although countries like Seychelles and the Philippines are fast embracing this form of tourism. Volker reveals that work on the project has been on going for the past five years.

“We contracted a Japanese engineer to design the enclosure and have conducted sea trial over the past one year and confirmed that no other marine creature can be captured in the net,” he says.

Seaquarium submitted its Environmental Impact Assessment (EIA) report for the project to Nema in March, opening a 30-day window for public comments. “Hopefully, Nema will agree with our EIA and if endorsed, we plan to have the sanctuary ready by November,” he says optimistically. 

But conservationists have robustly opposed the venture, which they say has been informed by financial profits under the guise of conservation. Most contend that being migratory and deep diving, whale sharks will be distressed if held in captivity in a 2,000-metre wide and by 600-metre deep enclosure. In its submission, the Watamu Marine Association (WMA) gives a damning verdict of the EIA report, which, it says, entirely ignores the welfare of the whale sharks.

Concerns raised

“The discussions focus mainly on the ecology of whale sharks and the threats to the species, but do not in any way analyse how the project will deal with the latter in specific terms or improve conservation efforts,” the association notes in its submission to Nema.

WMA argues that Seaquarium has failed to consider rehabilitation of the captive animals and contends that even if released after six months, the sharks, being a migratory species, may be unable to reach their traditional feeding grounds in time to catch food, thus affecting their mid to long term survival.

CORDIO East Africa, a coastal regional research body, accuses Seaquarium of overlooking the animal’s welfare.  “There is no way such a species that migrates more than 3,000km annually and dives down to 1,000m, can be happily confined to a shallow sea pond with no possible escape from tourist stress, no ability to feed naturally, nor seek out the natural conditions that suit it at different times of the year, nor socialise,” says David Obura, the firm’s co-ordinator.

Dr Obura, a scientist specialising in marine ecosystems, says the project will not be used for captive breeding, noting that no captive whale sharks have ever mated in over 20 years of trials in other countries.

The Born Free Foundation has also dived into the debate, saying there are better alternatives to conservation. 

 “We hope this project will go no further and that Kenya will retain its pre-eminent position in Africa as a country that does not exploit its wildlife,” Aaron Nicholas, the foundations conservation manager noted in a statement.

Mr Arthur Mahasi, a conservationist, contends that ‘caging’ animals away from their natural environment can never be qualified as conservation.  “Holding of animals in captivity to use them in circuses and so on is wrong. It seems to be a purely commercial undertaking that does not add up from a conservation point of view,” avers Mahasi.

The Shark Conservation Society chairman Richard Peirce also opposes the confinement of migratory species in pens.  “Whale sharks are filter feeders and travel large distances following well established annual migration routes, which are defined by their feeding areas. When these animals are kept in captivity in aquariums, they have to be bucket fed which is unnatural and, of course, they are not able to follow their migratory instincts,” he states. Other organisations that have called for the rejection of the application include the Africa Network for Animal Welfare and the Local Ocean Trust, Watamu.  But Volker dismisses the concerns as unfounded. “In Kenya, we enclose almost all forms of wildlife in parks to save them. Whale sharks are endangered and should not be treated differently,” he says.

Hollywood whale Seaquarium Ltd