There is a growing feud in a small fishing village in the Philippines between biologists and local fisherman after locals began offering tours to see and feed the mysterious whale sharks.
The practice started several years ago and gained popularity after visitors posted videos of the activity on the internet. Along the Tan-awan coastline on the island of Cebu, fisherman throw fish and shrimp into the water to draw the massive creatures close. The fisherman then let tourists snorkel or even scuba dive with the whale sharks.
The tours have only grown in popularity, which has given this poor community a vital financial lifeline.
But local conservationists and biologists say the practice should stop because it could potentially harm the animals by allowing them to develop unnatural and potentially harmful social habits.
"Some people are asking that we stop feeding, but if we stop feeding, what is our livelihood … we have to go back to fishing," Ramonito Lagahid, vice chairman of the Tan-awan Oslob Sea Warden and Fishermen Association (TOSWFA), told Reuters.
The creatures, known as gentle giants of the sea, can grow to nearly 50 feet and weigh over 20 tons. Scientists revealed that the sharks, which pose no threat to humans, tend to consume algae, plankton and krill. While the activity may be a once in a lifetime experience for tourists, biologists worry that it could have negitive effects on the creatures.
"It looks like being in a zoo, a circus, looking at the animal walking up and down being fed. This is not a natural behavior that you see," Alessandro Ponzo, head of Italy-based environmental group Physalus, told Reuters.
The fishermen who take tourists out to sea can earn more money than if they were to solely rely on fishing.
"It is easier working in the whale shark area ... [we] can earn a lot of money", Aikie Lagahid, 23, a fisherman who runs some of the tours, told AFP. "In the morning we take the guests out, and in the afternoon, we play basketball."