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JOURNAL ARTICLE

Multi-Year Impacts of Ecotourism on Whale Shark (Rhincodon typus) Visitation at Ningaloo Reef, Western Australia

R L Sanzogni, M G Meekan, J J Meeuwig
PloS One 2015, 10 (9): e0127345
26398338
In-water viewing of sharks by tourists has become a popular and lucrative industry. There is some concern that interactions with tourists with ecotourism operations might harm sharks through disruption of behaviours. Here, we analysed five years of whale shark (Rhincodon typus) encounter data by an ecotourism industry at Ningaloo Reef, Western Australia, to assess the impact of ecotourism interactions on shark visitation, within the context of the biological and physical oceanography of the region. Our data base consisted of 2823 encounter records for 951 individual whale sharks collected by ecotourism operators between 2007 and 2011. We found that total encounters per whale shark and encounters per boat trip increased through time. On average, whale sharks re-encountered in subsequent years were encountered earlier, stayed longer and tended to be encountered more often within a season than sharks that were only encountered in a single year. Sequential comparisons between years did not show any patterns consistent with disturbance and the rate of departure of whale sharks from the aggregation was negatively correlated to the number of operator trips. Overall, our analysis of this multi-year data base found no evidence that interactions with tourists affected the likelihood of whale shark re-encounters and that instead, physical and biological environmental factors had a far greater influence on whale shark visitation rates. Our approach provides a template for assessing the effects of ecotourism interactions and environmental factors on the visitation patterns of marine megafauna over multiple years.

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