Q & A With Ceviche Tours Co-founder John Vater

Q. How do Whale Shark Ecotours play a direct role in the Quintana Roo community?

A. The State of Quintana Roo extends from the border of Belize to the Gulf of Mexico along the Coast of the Yucatan. While the local communities have traditionally depended on the sea for a way of life, over the past few years tourism (sustainable ecotourism) has taken the place of working the waters. This shift to sustainable ecotourism from fishing has been seasonal and the summer months have been the slowest for the entire region – until the start of the Whale Shark Tourism boon which began about five years ago.

The communities that are home to Whale Shark Tourism are Isla Mujeres, which is situated right off the coast of Cancun, and Holbox on the Gulf of Mexico, which lies about 70 miles north of Isla Mujeres. These two Island communities have seen a major influx in ecotourism during the summer, which had been the slowest time of the year, benefiting the entire economic structure from travel agencies and transport companies throughout the state to the hotels, restaurants and tour providers on the Islands. This has also changed the attitude of many travelers from viewing Isla Mujeres and Holbox as primarily a day trip location to a “stay trip destination.”

Q. Why are these ecotours in this region important to both Locals and Tourists?

A. Ecotourism is about sustainability of the environment and all the species in it. It also encompasses the culture, heritage and livelihood of the local population. Without a focus

on the well being of the Islanders and a way of sustain ing the community, there is no way of preserving the ecosystem . The seasonal migration of Whale Sharks along the coast of the Yucatan has turned into a tourism resource that offers visitors a totally unique experience unrivaled in any other part of the world! Whale Sharks gather in the waters off Isla Mujeres in numbers that dwarf any other population of Whale Sharks, over 400 where counted on one day last July in the waters just east of Isla Mujeres. Through Ceviche Tours we provide whale shark excursions, opportunities for guests to swim side-by-side with these majestic creatures. This experience really drives home the concept that we need to protect whale sharks, and all marine life, through environmentalism and conservation efforts. Every one of us needs to get involved, and these whale shark excursions provide a truly humbling experience that emphasize our

responsibility to do just that.

Q. How does the ecotour process {and your business, specifically} Educate, inspire and

promote Whale Shark Conservation?

A. Once the Whale Shark Tourism industry in Isla Mujeres started to flourish, local guides and companies came together to write regulations for the activity of swimming with the whale sharks. Whale sharks are endangered species, and it is critical that everyone follows specific rules to continue to protect them. Prior to the whale shark tourism industry there were no rules in place. Today, these excursions are allowed only if tour operators follow these rules which limit the number of divers in the water, prohibit contact, etc. This effort – to establish rules to protect whale sharks -- was furthered by marine biologists and the Mexican government who now require guides to take courses in whale shark biology and preservation through safety and guest information. Ceviche Tours is proud to actively participate in educating the world about whale sharks and the need to protect marine life through sustainable ecotourism. We work with the

NGOs in the area and worldwide – including Project Domino, ECOCEAN -- as well as marine biologists from around the world to help with the photo identification of whale sharks we encounter on our tours. We keep an underwater camera on the boats and when we encounter a different group on whale sharks we record the markings on the left side of the animal from the gills to the pectoral fin, to the dorsal fin. These marks are unique to each animal, similar to our fingerprints, and are loaded into the local database through Project Domino and then fed to an international database owned by ECOCEAN (www.whaleshark.org). The information about location, date time size and sex along with any discernible marks will be stored in these databa

ses for comparison with other sightings of the same shark for years to come.

We encourage through our Websites whale shark preservation and have many articles written on our work listed on www.cevichetours.com and www.whalesharkfest.com. When tourists book a tour on our boats we encourage them to become “citizen scientists” and we teach then how to take a correct photo to be used in the Project Domino/ECOCEAN Photo ID Program and also provide the m with a handout from ecocean.org with additional information on identifying and taking pictures of whale sharks for the database.

Our guides are taught about interdependent species to the whale sharks and about their migration habits through a series of seminars part of the International Whale Shark Conference. This Conference has attracted not only the interest of fellow tour operators and employees but also marine biologists around the world. It has also sparked the imaginations of travelers who are eager to participate in sustainable ecotourism, and as a result we’ve expanded the Conference and established the now very popular Whale Shark Festival in Isla Mujeres. This summer we celebrat

ed our 3rd year. Ceviche Tours is the primary organizer of the Festival along with Rafael de la Para of Project Domino who coordinates the scientific seminars that are for both the tour providers’ education as well as the visitors to the Festival, who are welcome to attend. These seminars are free to attend.

Ceviche Tours has also worked with biologist Catalina Galindo, who also serves as Director or Amigos de Isla Contoy and does community education and coordinates with the Department of Tourism on event scheduling. She also works to educate local children coordinating kid-friendly environmental education and preservation projects within the Isla Mujeres community.

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