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Date of Issue: July 22, 2009

Whale of a (whale shark) tale

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Ted Dorenkamp and Steve Doyle were out for a day on the water when they had “the sight of a lifetime” — a whale shark.

They were on Dorenkamp’s 22-foot open fishing boat, anchored off a sunken barge 18 miles due west of Bean Point in the flat, calm Gulf of Mexico when they saw a commotion in the water about 100 yards away. Then a big tail fin of a really big creature emerged.

Whatever the creature was, it was evident it spotted them too.

“And all of a sudden it charged the boat. It came right up to us, and we realized it was a whale shark,” he said.

Whale sharks are filter feeders, straining plankton and small fish through tiny teeth to fill their cavernous gullet. Whale sharks are also the largest fish in the ocean, growing to lengths of 50 feet.

He said the whale shark swam around the boat a few times, close enough that the men could see remoras, pilot fish and even some big cobia hanging out under the huge fish, which they estimated at 25 feet.

“Then it went under the boat and lifted up the bow,” Dorenkamp said. “We had to hang on. Then it went to the stern and bumped it a few times. It must have been around us for 30 or 45 minutes.”

The scary part was when the shark would dive down to the bottom, then rocket up to the surface, Moby Dick-like — without the whale shark-man-boat interaction made popular in Herman Melville’s novel, of course.

“It was the sight of a lifetime,” Dorenkamp said. “It was very, very, very, very cool.”

Inveterate fisher that he is, Dorenkamp was able to hook one of the cobia that was hanging out under the whale shark’s nose, but lost it.

“But I did catch a 50- to 75-pound kingfish that day,” Dorenkamp laughed. “We fed the neighborhood.”

And gained a fish tale of a lifetime.