The world’s largest fish, a whale shark, recently got up close and personal with fishermen in Ocean City, nudging their boat for long enough that the crew captured a stunning video.
Steve Moore — who helms the boat, dubbed “The Stalker” — was on an overnight fishing trip in late June when his crew spotted the 30-to-35-foot-long whale shark, the Delmarva Daily Times reported. A second sighting, on July 4, occurred near the same spot. At that point, Josh Schleupner jumped into the water to swim with the majestic fish, capturing awe-inspiring video in the process, the paper said.
Although the video of a monster fish nudging its snout into a boat or swimming just feet from a human may seem scary, such occurrences are usually not dangerous, nor are they particularly rare, said Alistair Dove, vice president of research and conservation at the Georgia Aquarium.
“The interest the animal takes in the boat is not unusual,” Dove said.
Whale sharks are inquisitive animals that often take an interest in fishing vessels. Some crews even keep a pole handy to nudge the behemoths away, and responsible boaters will cut their engines to avoid injuring them, Dove said.
Despite their frightening appearance, the creatures are mostly harmless, Dove said.
“It’s a wonderful shark in the sense that it breaks what we think we know about what sharks are,” Dove said. “Here’s the biggest shark of all, and it’s a big, polka-dotted gentle giant that doesn’t have big, nasty teeth.”
Whale sharks (they are sharks, not whales) can grow 40 feet long. They are filter feeders, meaning they use their five-foot-wide mouths filled with hundreds of bristly teeth to filter huge gulps of plankton from seawater. The elusive creatures are also deep divers, sometimes plunging to depths of 6,000 feet.
Most whale sharks live in the Indian and Pacific oceans, though about a quarter of the population roams the Atlantic. They thrive in waters that are more than 71 degrees, and during the summer they may coast up the warm Gulf Stream as far north as Long Island.
Whale sharks have very few enemies, although occasionally a pod of orcas may attack a juvenile. However, the gentle giants are listed as endangered by the International Union for Conservation of Nature, mainly because humans have overfished them in the western Indian Ocean.
Whale sharks act as homes for many marine creatures. For example, remoras (also called suckerfish) literally stick to the sharks’ skin; other fish school with the sharks, coasting on their swimming drafts; and parasitic creatures feed on the animals, Dove said.
Whale sharks are not aggressive, and as long as people keep at least 10 feet away, they are not at risk of injury. (The biggest risk of getting too close is being accidentally slapped by the animal’s massive tail.) In places such as Indonesia and the Galapagos Islands, people often swim with whale sharks, Dove said.