Ocean City Today

Recent whale shark videos elicit caution from experts

National Aquarium advises against jumping in water to swim for numerous reasons
By Brian Gilliland | Jul 20, 2017

(July 21, 2017) Calling it an honor and a privilege to spot a whale shark, Assistant Curator for Blue Wonders at the National Aquarium in Baltimore Jennie Jansson said jumping in to swim with the gentle giants is taking the experience a bit too far.

Two whale sharks were recently spotted and captured on video in separate encounters about 70 miles off the coast of Ocean City. In one of the videos, an angler is seen swimming close to the fish, which Jansson said isn’t a great idea for safety and other reasons.

First, whale sharks have skin similar to other sharks — smooth as silk if rubbed one way, but as rough as sandpaper if struck against the grain, easily able to take off human skin should it be too close. Parasites and mutualistic species, such as remoras, are usually present on and around the bigger fish too, but are unlikely to be a danger to humans, Jansson said.

Also, whale sharks are filter feeders, like most whales, but are fish, unlike whales. They feed on plankton or small fish and squid, and don’t really present a direct threat to people.

They come near the surface for food, and are opportunistic feeders, so if one has surfaced in your area it’s because it has found a meal. By diving in with the fish, a person could disrupt that process, resulting in a hungry animal as well as a missed opportunity to witness something even cooler in the water.

“When whale sharks feed, they often just stop swimming and slurp at the surface,” she said. The fish’s huge, powerful tail stops moving and the shark goes vertical in the water, opening its huge mouth and filtering food, water, and whatever else is nearby through its gills.

That would give the observer a chance to look straight down its gullet.

On the other hand, if something bigger than it expects enters its mouth, say on the scale of an entire fish or even a person, Jansson said it would usually just spit that out. However, if a stray arm or leg enters the mouth and merely annoys the fish, it could do something very different.

“I’ve observed them just clamp their mouths closed and won’t open back up again — the longest I’ve seen a whale shark stay that way is several hours,” she said. “They probably wouldn’t sever anything, but they could break bones and drag you around for a while.”

In the relative isolation 70 or so miles offshore of Ocean City, that situation could go bad in a hurry.

Jansson said the usually docile fish don’t normally swim very fast, but they can move if they have the mind to.

“If they want to get away, they can,” she said.

It’s also possible to become trapped between boat and fish — a situation Jansson said is not ideal.

“They can squash you. I would not want to be between a whale shark and a boat,” Jansson said.

Before her work in Baltimore, Jansson helped launch the whale shark exhibit at the Georgia Aquarium in Atlanta, which does allow people the opportunity to swim or dive with whale sharks in controlled environments for a fee.

Whale sharks are also a federally protected species. According to Maryland Department of Natural Resources Police PIO Candy Thomson, the maximum fines for first-time offenders for killing a whale shark is $3,500, injuring one is $2,000 and harassing the animal — usually defined as anything that causes the animal to change its behavior — can range from $1,000 to $10,500.

“You should definitely enjoy that moment,” when a whale shark is spotted in the wild, Jansson said. “Take a photo, take a video.”

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