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WHALE SHARK ENCOUNTER
by Linda Lee, MARCH 17, 2003

Whale Shark up closeWhat an incredible experience we had today! Two weeks ago, we were totally thrilled with seeing and snorkeling three times with a whale shark about a mile off the northeast coast of the island of Utila in the Bay Islands of Honduras. That day David was able to capture about fifteen seconds of footage on his underwater video camera. There were three dive boats and two local pongas converging upon one whale shark, with about 30 or 40 snorkelers all jumping into the water nearly on top of him all at one time. He would slowly drift down deep and away from us, but kept resurfacing and didn’t seem too troubled by all of our excitement.

Whale Shark swimingToday, our experience surpassed that first time by 100% !! We had been told that the sightings of whale sharks increase around the full moon times of March and April, so we purposely returned to Utila at this time. We have raved on the VHF and Ham radio net about our first encounter, and a number of other sailboats are here in the anchorage with us. David went to the same dive shop, Deep Blue Divers, whom we used previously and made arrangements for a more private trip out. Our thought being that perhaps we could go when there wouldn’t be so many boats and that fewer snorkelers might mean the whale shark would not descend so quickly.

Whale Shark up closeWe ended up with fifteen cruisers from seven sailboats, plus a single woman who is vacationing on the island. The dive shop charged us $25.00 US per person and our sole purpose was finding and swimming with whale sharks, and taking photos and videos. Locating the whale sharks is relatively easy. We cruised away from land to a deep trench where whale sharks are known to feed. Apparently the upward currents in deep trenches bring up plankton into shallower depths.

Whale Shark up closeWe searched for an area called the “boil” where the ocean surface appears to be “boiling” with tuna and other large fish in a feeding frenzy after the bait fish that are feeding on the plankton. A number of birds are frantically diving into the “boiling” water after whatever fish they can catch. The whale sharks are attracted to the “boil” where they feed in a vertical position by sieving a gulp of seawater through their four-foot wide mouth. I thought whale sharks ate only plankton, like whales. But my fish book says they feed on plankton, bait fish, tuna, squid and pelagic crustaceans that are sieved from the water. The book further says they tend to ignore divers, and will dive and disappear, but often remain in the area, making numerous passes if unmolested.

Whale Shark up closeSo, although we were frantically jumping into the water as close as we could to each whale shark, they must not have felt molested, as they kept resurfacing. Although there were several other small boats around, for most of the afternoon we were the only dive boat, and we did indeed increase the time we were able to observe the whale shark in the water. The reactions from the snorkelers were of excitement and awe. Everyone was surprised at the enormous size of the whale shark and its mouth. Several people said they actually back peddled trying to get further away from it initially, but after a few times, became more relaxed. Whale sharks do not have teeth, only rows of short filaments. The height of the tail was estimated to be about 6 feet, and it brushed several people. The overall length was estimated to be about 35 feet, and several people said they could have petted its entire length as it gently glided past. Everyone was in awe and there was so much excitement on the boat between sightings. We spent about 3 hours out, swam 7 times, and believe we were with 2 or 3 different whale sharks. The final sighting was a huge “boil”, had at least 2 whale sharks present, and the one we swam with was quite a bit smaller that the previous ones.

Whale Shark up closeBack at the dive shop we were able to watch a video produced by the Discovery Channel and another by the local Whale Shark Research Institute. We gleaned more interesting facts about whale sharks. Although they feed and behave much like whales, they are not mammals. They have no bones, but like sharks, are structured with cartilage, and are in the shark family. Their tail fin is vertical like a fish, not horizontal like whales and dolphins. They are very migratory, which makes it difficult to estimate their numbers. They have never been seen mating or giving birth. Females do carry their young, and the gestation period is estimated to be in excess of one year. Their size at birth is not known, but there have not been sightings of any smaller than 10 to 15 feet. Could they be that large at birth??? A group of 15 pregnant females was observed in the Galapagos Islands, but no males were present. Marine scientists are tagging whale sharks, often using satellite tags, in an effort to track their migratory patterns, to estimate their numbers and to learn more about these “gentle giants”. None of the ones we have seen here in Utila have been tagged, although the tape we watched showed local divers tagging whale sharks here.

Whale Shark up closeDavid was able to get 10 minutes of excellent video and still picture footage (after editing) from the 7 encounters. He decided to charge $10.00 for copies of VCR tapes and $5.00 for CD’s and donate all of the money to the Shark Research Institute trying to get set up here at Utila. He sold 10 tapes the first day. We are using old movie tapes, so following 10 minutes of whale sharks, there may be 1 to 3 movies for free!


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