Ningaloo is viewed as demonstrating best practice when it comes to whale shark eco-tourism, and the results of a study released at a conference in Exmouth last week strengthened that reputation.

Dr Holly Raudino, a research scientist with the Department of Biodiversity, Conservation and Attractions’ marine science program, used monitoring systems on tour operator vessels to study whether “encounter duration” decreased the more an individual whale shark was swum with.

Dr Raudino presented the findings at the fifth International Whale Shark Conference last Tuesday. “We found encounter duration doesn’t significantly go down, which was a great finding for industry,” she said.

“But we did discover there were a couple of factors which did affect the length of the interaction with the tourists, and they were vessel ID and the sex of the whale shark.”

Each of the 14 vessels operating on the reef at the time had different engine types, which the animals were disturbed by or responded to differently.

“The skippers also handled the vessels differently around the animals, which affected how long people are in the water with them,” Dr Raudino said.

The study also found whale sharks where the sex was unknown had the shortest duration encounters.

The results of the study are a tick for Exmouth tour operators, showing they can balance satisfying tourists and making sure they’re managing the industry correctly.

“One possible reason for that is the spotters that are swimming with the whale sharks dive down to look at the claspers, which is how we tell the sex, and that might cause the animals to dive,” Raudino said.