Creating Two Way Magic With Wildlife

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Much mystery surrounds the ocean’s largest fish – the Whale Shark – the spotty gentle giants of the world under the sea.

Spending completely surreal, magical moments deep in the big blue with these huge creatures it really hits hard to learn of their struggle for survival, with humans their greatest threat.

When a Whale Shark is swimming towards you, you instantly become tranced by their beauty. Tranced by their power. Their calming, flowing energies sallow you as they cruise by so composed and so controlled. It seems if you’re gentle in your movements, they welcome you into their world of magic leaving behind all the noise from above the sea.

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Whale Sharks are endangered with their population decreasing by a devastating 50% in the last 75 years. This decline is attributed to being hunted for their meat and prized dorsal fins, collisions with boat propellers, irresponsible eco tourism activities and being filter-feeders with wide large mouths - plastic pollution.

Spending 80-90% of their lives 50-100m below the surface, it really is a special thing we are able to swim alongside these solitary, placid giants as they aggregate to feed within the waters of the Indian Ocean on the West Australian coast during our winter.

There is little known about these magical creatures most specifically their breeding and birthing patterns. What I admire with such appreciation is the passion the people from Kings Ningaloo Reef Tours who have chosen the Ningaloo National Park in Exmouth, WA as their special place. Dedicating seasons upon seasons to marine research and education, particularly around the Whale Shark, so this ocean oasis can remain pure and untouched.

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There are rules and regulations in place here which are strictly followed to ensure tourism within the Whale Sharks’ World Heritage feeding ground does not impact on their natural habitat and their natural behaviours. These include strict distances between you and the shark (you can still get incredibly and amazingly close!), a cap on the number of swimmers in the water at any one time, and an absolute no-touch policy.

You can also swim with whale sharks in Mexico, the Maldives and the Phillipines but it is so incredibly important that any animal encounter experience you choose is a decision well-informed and well-researched. Speaking in depth with the marine biologists within Ningaloo National Park I learned the majority of the sharks in these countries are actually lured in by food from locals, meaning they then break away from their natural flowing filter-feeding behaviours and remain within the same human-ravaged area of the ocean. While many companies also allow tourists with zero marine credentials to get so close they are able to touch the sharks with no limit on the number of people in the water at any one time.

To me, this sounds like absolute chaos and is no doubt an incredibly overwhelming, stressful experience for these calm, peaceful beings, creating an environment so far from their natural habitat and encouraging behaviours so far from their wild living.

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My experience with Whale Sharks has reignited my strong views around how our eco tourism choices can feed wildlife abuse.

We should know there is a dark side to those "cute" up close and personal tourist photos of people posing with beautiful endangered wildlife across the world and a sad discovery last year reminded us of why we should never ever be involved.

40 little tiger cubs were found in freezers at Thailand's infamous Tiger Temple with another 20 missing, and the devastating reality, they likely would be sold into the pet trade or killed and sold for Chinese medicine.

Taking a holiday snap with tigers sedated or restrained in chains, having breakfast with cuddly orangutans, posing for selfies while riding elephants - I see these photos on my own social media. By engaging in these activities because it's fun or cute or for the "look at me" factor you are actually fuelling the suffering of these beautifully innocent endangered creatures. You may be smiling, but sadly they are suffering.

It is tourism dollars that feed abuse in places like this. Our dollars.

Please never swim with large ocean wildlife like whale sharks where companies and locals allow you to touch and invade their personal space. Please never ride on the backs of elephants or visit places where elephants play soccer and paint pictures. Please never visit places where orangutans or monkeys pose for photos or are used to entertain you in shows. Please never ever visit a place that allows you to hold a baby orangutan. Please never pose for a photo with a tiger in chains or cuddle a tiger cub.

Posing for photos, taking humans for joy rides and performing in shows is SO far from what these animals would be engaging in in the wild, yet day after day tourists from first world developed countries are ignorantly exploiting their existence.

Trust your intuition, honour your instincts, look around, observe. Does it feel natural? Wildlife encounters are so incredibly magic but we want to make that two way magic for the animals too. The power to create these special moments for both of Mama Earth’s creatures is in our hands.

There are so many other activities to do, amazing places to explore and beautiful local people to engage with while traveling, there really is never any need to be part of this devastating industry.

I have been in absolute awe of animals since I was very young and of course I would love to admire their beauty and power up close, but so much more of me wants to see them roaming and flowing free in the wild.

There's a reason they have the name wildlife, they should be living the wild life.

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Kate Baker