The Leisure and Cultural Services Department probably overreacted to the sighting of a suspected whale shark off Lamma Island on Sunday by closing 12 beaches across the city - missing a chance to educate people about marine preservation, says a conservationist.
The beaches in Island and Southern districts were reopened yesterday when there were no further reports of shark sightings.
Samantha Lee Mei-wah, a marine conservation officer with WWF Hong Kong, said the closure could have been unnecessary.
'The department could have overreacted a bit. Instead of issuing warnings, the department could have made use of this opportunity to educate the public about sharks,' she said.
The department should draw up more detailed guidelines to decide which shark sightings would prompt beach closures instead of a blanket warning against all sharks.
A department spokesman said yesterday that the shark was large and could have been a tiger shark. 'Although we could not ascertain the species of the shark, we considered it necessary to close the beaches to safeguard the safety of swimmers and to do further surveillance.'
Lee said whale sharks feed on plankton and pose no threat to humans, unlike aggressive predator species such as tiger sharks, bull sharks and great whites. Whale sharks are found in tropical waters and are extremely popular with divers who take the chance to swim among the gentle giants. Unconfirmed reports have some whale sharks reaching 16 metres in length.
However, Lee advised people not to get too close to whale sharks when they were spotted in Hong Kong waters as they might not be used to a new environment and being surrounded by many swimmers.
Swimmers should not jump into the water immediately after sighting a whale shark as other, more dangerous sharks might be nearby.
Chan Kin-wah, a council member of the Hong Kong and Kowloon Lifeguards' Union, said Lee's suggestions were impractical as it was difficult to identify shark species from a beach.
'Safety always comes first. Some swimmers might feel threatened simply by the sheer size of a whale shark, even though it might not be aggressive,' he said.
Meanwhile, marine police were unable to confirm a report of another shark sighting by a German woman walking her dog on Little Palm Beach in Sai Kung on Sunday afternoon. The woman's friend, Madonna Magepan, 63, said she normally swims at the beach every day but decided not to yesterday after her friend raised the alarm.
'Angela walks her dog along the beach every morning. When she saw the shark, she called the police immediately,' Magepan said.
Little Palm Beach is next to Silverstrand Beach where there have been at least two fatal shark attacks on swimmers - a 65 year-old-woman in June 1991, and a man, 60, in June 1993.
The number of years whale sharks can live to. The largest confirmed one was 12.65 metres long and weighed more than 21 tonnes