The polka-dotted giants showed up the first week of June, but it will likely be near Christmas before their travels beyond Anna Maria Island will be known.
Whale sharks, the largest fish species in the sea, are a rare sight in the waters surrounding Anna Maria Island — at least for this duration, according to Robert Hueter, senior scientist and director of the center for shark research at Mote Marine Laboratory and Aquarium in Sarasota.
Whale sharks aren’t whales, they are sharks.
But these giants have more in common with whales than their predatory first cousins. They grow to enormous sizes and filter-feed, like the largest baleen whales. Seventy-five percent of whale sharks live in the Indian and Pacific oceans.
So June 2, when Jacob Campoamor and his family were fishing for grouper about 40 miles out and a pod of five whale sharks appeared near his boat, he was more than surprised.
Campoamor said he has been fishing around the island for more than 40 years and never before had he seen a whale shark.
One in the pod that passed close by was longer than his 25-foot boat. All were massive, he said.
Whale sharks can reach 40 feet in length, but most are between 18-32-foot long. An average weight is 20 tons. Covered with large white polka dots, they have an almost whimsical appearance.
Like human fingerprints, no two dot patterns are alike and scientists who study whale sharks use the patterns for identification.
The so-called “gentle giants” of the sea circled through the waters for about 20 minutes before Campoamor lost sight of them.
But they didn’t stay missing for long. June 14, Bradenton boat captain Barry Moss was about 20 miles offshore when he came across some whale sharks. Moss believes, like Campoamor, one of the animals was bigger than his 25-foot fishing vessel.
“It was breathtaking, a once-in-a-lifetime experience,” Moss told The Islander. “The water out there was smooth as pavement, and all of a sudden we saw them. I cut the engine, and one came right to the boat.”
The shark research team at Mote used Moss’ coordinates and wasted no time in getting to the area. The first whale shark was found almost 40 miles west of Longboat Key. The 16-foot male was tagged and nicknamed “Colt.”
Several hours later, a 22-25-foot female was tagged as the Mote team was on its way back to shore. It was nicknamed “Minnie,” a nod to The Walt Disney Co. whose support paid for the tags.
Senior Mote biologist Jack Morris attached the tags to the whale sharks just behind the left side dorsal fin using a titanium-head dart on the end of a wooden pole.
“The tags will store data. After six months, the tags will detach and float, sending up a signal with all the archival data as well as GPS location detection,” Morris said.
Information retrieved will include where the creatures have been, as well as water depths and temperatures encountered.
Three more whale sharks were found much closer to shore and photographed for identification.
Hueter said the tagging expedition totaled about six hours, and the information scientist may glean from it will be more than worth the effort.
“Right now, we don’t know if there is a greater than normal abundance of whale sharks in the area,” Hueter said. “There could be other reasons for these long-duration sightings here, such as better ocean conditions for spotting the sharks, the opening of red snapper season drawing more boats offshore or the increased prevalence of smartphones to capture photos and videos.”
“Reports of whale sharks are usually scattered,” Hueter added. “But these have stayed pretty stable, 20-40 miles offshore. There is something out there they are feeding on they like. Lots of fish are spawning, the eggs rise up, they love that.”
Hueter, who has been with Mote since 1988, said he has seen whale sharks off the island coast only three times.
By the final week of June, there were no more sightings. Hueter said a fisher reported seeing one of the tagged whale sharks with its floating tether around June 22.
Meanwhile, Mote scientists are hoping to tag more whale sharks. They urge anyone who spots a whale shark in the Gulf of Mexico to contact the shark lab at 941-302-0976.
For information about Mote Marine Laboratory go to mote.org.