September Members Meeting – Film Waa Shark Centre

In September during our monthly meeting we watched a film on Waa Shark Centre.

And you may ask – now what does Whale sharks got to do with Nairobi National Park? Firstly, this was our second plan after our speaker for the day (Topic: Status of Rhinos in Kenya) had to attend to some matters and could not come. Secondly, this film was a great learning experience with lessons we can use in Nairobi Park and one big question that lingers on now is: how safe is our wildlife when in the open areas (dispersal areas) and what are some of the measures we can take now to ensure we co-exists with our wildlife peacefully such that come future generations, we shall be proud of the wildlife legacy we leave behind?

We had an interactive meeting and all members felt it would be better to have the shark expert sometime later to take us through the film explaining more and answering our questions.
Below are some of the issues that came up after watching the Waa Shark Sanctuary Film and I contacted Volker Bassen who is spearheading the initiative to start a Whale Shark Sanctuary down at the Coast for answers.

1. Is there alternative oil that can be used by the communities to ensure they no longer hunt sharks for the oil they use for their boats? Is there any awareness of the alternatives being created in the communities?

Answer; Cashew nut shell oil is the perfect alternative. It can be produced locally (we have many cashew nut farms along our coastline) but currently there is no such machinery, let alone know how in order to produce it. Part of the profits from the Waa whale shark sanctuary will be used to import machinery and start distribution of this oil. It costs about a third compared to shark liver oil and last 2 seasons instead of one. The oil was introduced by Wildlife Trust of India together with TATA Chemicals in 1999 in order to tackle the high demand of shark liver oil in Gujarat/ India where the annual slaughter of whale sharks had reached 1500 whale sharks per year! Today every fisherman who owns a sodden boat is using cashew nut shell oil and it has spread to the Gulf of Arabia.

2. How will you manage to put sharks inside the Sanctuary – to lure them from the open oceans to the enclosed place?

Answer: We will catch it the same way you catch any fish although several methods have been used. The easiest way is to attach a 16/0 hook with the barb removed. (So it’s easy to remove without causing injury) This hook will be attached by a snorkeler after which 10 x 7 kg EVA floats are attached, total buoyancy of 70 kg in order not to hurt the shark. Once tired and brought next to the boat, scuba divers will attach a padded harness after which the shark will be towed to the enclosure at 2.5 Nm per hour. The whale shark will have plenty of oxygen while being towed (forwards) and once it reaches the sanctuary it will be completely recovered. The shark will be caught in the vicinity of the sanctuary, within a radius of a couple of miles.

3. In the film, there is a shark tracked to swim all the way to America, won’t keeping them in an enclosed place hamper with their growth and development?

Answer: The whale shark referred to in the film was a mature female 13 meter whale shark, presumed pregnant. It has actually been spotted last year off the small Island of Santa Maria. Our (to some extent) resident juvenile whale shark population were found to stay in Kenyan water all year around. (70 %) while all the 17 tagged whale sharks stayed in East Africa all year, the furthest only traveling to the Seychelles. Every whale shark researcher agrees that there is no detectable migration pattern among whale sharks, this is strange as almost every fish follows distinct migration routes. Not so the whale shark. (more information about our migration research can be found at as we will release the sharks during peak season, even if there was a migration pattern, they would be able to complete it.

4. How safe will the sharks be in the enclosed region from the threats already facing them like hunting?

Answer: There will be askaris (watchmen) 24/7 consisting of members of the Waa-Kikadini BMU (Beach Management Unit) the main stakeholders of this project. We will also have a veterinary team specializing in marine animal husbandry on site at all times.

5. Isn’t this project advocating for zoos, enclosing the sharks in a specific location, instead of guarding the sharks in the open seas?

Answer: Zoo’s have existed a long time and some are doing a great job promoting conservation. However, this sanctuary could be compared to an aquarium, not a Zoo. It is important to point out that size does matter, the Waa whale shark sanctuary will be about 100 times bigger than the biggest aquarium in the world, the Georgia aquarium currently holding 4 whale sharks. It is also twice as deep. Furthermore, the site was chosen because we have seen many whale sharks in that area, it’s a natural habitat for them.
Also important to point out is that neither Zoo’s nor aquariums tend to release their animals after a short period of time, we will.

6. How will you ensure that the sharks left in the open seas are actually safe considering that only the few in the sanctuary maybe the safe ones?

Answer: Conservation starts with awareness building. We need to spread the word. The fact that everyone is now talking about the whale shark thanks to this project is already a good start! We have managed to get the whale shark on the new wildlife bill. The whale shark is currently lacking protection in Kenya. However, this will hardly make much difference as we have seen with regards of our rhinos and elephants. We need to go into fishing communities and educate them. At the same time they should also benefit financially from this project through sustainable marine conservation project. The most important aspect is to launch the cashew nut shell oil as this will immediately cease the demand for shark liver oil. We also need to showcase these majestic fish in order to incite the desire to conserve them. Everyone who had a chance to swim with one of these gentle giant will become the ambassador for this fish. We will collect school children from remote fishing villages and invite them to participate in our marine education program.

7. Does the community know how it will benefit and what are the structures that shall be put in place to adequately involve the community to ensure that they do not feel like it is a idea imposed on them?

Answer: The community has been involved right from the start 5 years ago. There are clear MoU’s in place between us and them. After all; this is a private public partnership in conservation, them being the main stakeholders. An estimated 300 million is going into the Waa community coffers over the next 5 years. These funds will be handled in full transparency, open to public scrutiny as we recognize the importance of this.

8. Who are the other stakeholders both government and private institutions supporting this cause?

Answer: We have anchored the project through the laws and regulations of the Ministry of Fisheries BMU act. Since the whale shark is a fish it falls under their jurisdiction.
The project is designed to benefit fishermen and educate them in more modern and sustainable fishing methods such as FAD fishing targeting our healthy Dorado stocks. We need to get them off the coral reefs which cannot sustain the fishing pressure which is increasing on a daily basis. The Fisheries has been involved right from the start and has played a vital role in order to get the project off the ground. We also want to work with KMFRI as well as the University of Nairobi in order to revive the science centre located in Diani. We will provide the expertise and educate Kenyan’s who we hope will eventually be able to care for these fish themselves. After all; our vision 2030 is to be able to breed these fish in captivity.

9. Why did NEMA refuse the Waa proposal? What were there fears? Has he given NEMA a reply?
10. What are the people opposed to the idea of a sanctuary doing?

Answer: Nema were gotten to by some critics opposing the sanctuary. This was expected. Some made us responsible for flaws in the EIA (Environmental Impact Assessment) although we have no expertise in conducting EIA, the reason we hired GIBB Africa, a highly respected company recommended to us by Anjali Saini. We should not be held responsible for these flaws, merely make sure they are addressed to everyone’s satisfaction. This we have done, hiring one of Obura’s (our main opposer) Nema registered marine lead expert. This new EIA edition will be added to the old one in the interest of addressing every comment and concern based on scientific facts. It will be presented during the tribunal as we have appealed Nema’s decision. As far as the opposition goes, they have no other plan whatsoever.

Darren Whitehead is a whale shark researcher who supports this project and he can be contacted at in case of any further questions as well as Volker Bassen.

We requested interested partners to write to NEMA again and increase the campaign for the Sanctuary.

Personal Message from Volker to all whale enthusiasts, whale lovers, scientists, friends and Kenyans: I often get the question: Volker, how are your whale sharks doing? A very disheartening question for me… They are not my whale sharks, they are yours too! What are YOU doing for our whale sharks? Surely you’ll want your children, grand children and future generation to see these amazing fish. Ask yourself what you can do. On behalf of the whale sharks, please write a letter together with your members IN SUPPORT of the Waa whale shark sanctuary and deliver it to NEMA. (We would also like a copy : )

Here Darren Whitehead letter of support, happy reading!

To whom it might concern.
Across the Indian Ocean and especially along the East coast of Africa whale shark numbers are plummeting due to targeted and non-targeted fishery pressure, ocean pollution and poorly managed tourism operations. The whale sharks that congregate seasonally in Kenyan waters face a massive threat, from recent non-consumable fishery actions and the lack of education for the conservation of the species on a national level. Currently Kenya has no national legislation to protect whale sharks in its state waters and only a relevant fishing license is needed to actively hunt and kill whale sharks in Kenya. The whale shark is a highly vulnerable species that is listed on a number of international legislations and only recently are we begging to piece together its complex life style. So it goes without saying that the first line of defense for the conservation of the whale sharks globally is to provide national protection in countries where they are observed, to gain further knowledge of all biological aspects of their existence and provide the best recommendation to protect them.
The EAWST is at the forefront of whale shark research in Kenya and has been conducting research along its coastline since 2005. Their commitment to research and conservation has provided a strong foundation for whale shark research, keeping them at the highest level of modern advancements in the field. Furthermore, their recent efforts and constant objections to the lack of legislation for whale sharks in Kenya may have finally got the species onto the new Wildlife Bill and a first step towards national conservation.
As a whale shark biologist, I have spent the last 5 years working hands on with this species at a number of unique and challenging aggregation sites across the entire Indian Ocean. With a Masters by research degree specialising in whale shark behaviour and the assessment of the anthropogenic impact on the species from tourism interactions, I have a vast understanding of the possible negative impacts from uncontrolled tourism. My experience with the species as a researcher and as a project leader for multiple whale shark programs has provided me with a working understanding of all biological studies of whale sharks. Most recently technological advancements in our sector have accelerated my knowledge on statistical investigation and methodology for the analysis of the species behavioural changes, tourism management and the skills to examine shark disturbance levels and ensure safe practices for both the animal and the participants. My extant knowledge of the internal and external biology of whale sharks, their migratory patterns, environmental cues which effect their feeding and educational programs to integrate community support for the species make me a highly specialist whale shark biologist.
The Waa Whale Shark Sanctuary project is an innovative approach to modern day sustainable tourism while merging forefront research in behavoural observations, nutrition and tourism. With its clear underlining objectives to provides a sustainable community-based support for local communities by marine research projects and sustaining livelihoods the Waa sanctuary may be the next best practice model for future whale shark initiatives. This unique futuristic project is the first of its kind to bring together world-renowned whale shark biologists in Husbandry and natural habitats with tropical fish veterinary experts. I am in full support of this project and its objectives and I am proud to be in collaboration with a group of highly specialised experts from around the world.

Dr. Keiichi Sato, from the Churaumi aquarium in Japan, is a world leader in whale shark biology and husbandry, his expertise and guidance are invaluable to our goals. The support from Dr. Brent Stewart senior research scientist at the Hubbs-Sea world research institute, who is a renowned whale shark expert and coordinator in the development of a number of whale shark research programs, offers further expertise to such an innovative research project. Ultimately, Dr. Bo Runsten a highly respected veterinary expert in tropical fish from the largest shark aquarium in Scandinavia, Universeum provide the Waa whale shark project fundamental knowledge of captive animal care and fish medicine which is one of the core elements for captive research goal. My support for this project was enhanced further by reading the unique shareholders agreement by the Seaquarium shareholders, which demonstrates clear objectives to divert profits from the sanctuary into sustainable marine conservation projects for the local communities who would have to adapt to changes to their livelihoods. Projects such as the cashew nut oil plant, tilapia and spirolina farming established in rural areas shows forefront adaptations to a changeling question that most whale shark tourism localities have trouble managing and proving. The adopt a whale shark project to sponsor less privileged school children in the local area to come and participate in the EAWST marine education program emphasizes support for community involvement and lays foundation for the future of marine conservation in Kenya.
Research on whale sharks relies on the hard work and dedication of researchers. Unfortunately, the number of scientists that devote their lives worldwide to the protection of these magnificent creatures is still very low compared to other marine taxonomic groups like cetaceans. (Whales and Dolphins) The more scientists studying whale sharks across the world and sharing their findings, the better our understanding will be of these gentle giants. Although while our understanding of the species has greatly increased over recent years, there is still so much more to learn. The continued development of new pioneer research project like the Waa whale shark sanctuary, as well as the increased awareness of this species among the public, is certainly a step in the right direction towards uncovering the mystery of the world’s largest fish and understanding the best way to protect it. Ultimately, tourism directors need to communicate to restore equilibrium between offering a respectable tourist experience and the risk of negative impact to both the environment and species from their negligent activities and the Waa whale shark sanctuary may be the first of its kind to provide a guaranteed controlled memorable tourism interaction with a strong scientific message for sustainability.

Darren Andrew Whitehead. M.s.c Whale Shark Biologist.


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s