2000-05 Steward of the Whale Shark

By Dr. Alex Antoniou

Mary from Michigan, Julie from Delaware and Jackie from Florida had taken many international dive trips over the years. But when it came to planning their next trip, they wanted something different, something unusual. They wanted wild, unpredictable adventure. After hearing about excursions organized by the Shark Research Institute (SRI), the trio signed up for Operation Whale Shark, a study of the world’s largest, but most docile, fish. On May 15, 1999, all three converged on the tiny island of Utila in the Bay Islands of Honduras, to begin their work. What they didn’t expect, was that their adventure would produce a satisfaction far beyond the normal encounters between diver and beast. No longer just observers of marine life, they would become stewards of the sea.

“The trip was an education from beginning to end,” says Mary. “I learned how to take GPS readings, tissue samples and measure a very large fish in the water. I learned how to record data and the subtleties of naming these awesome creatures. But, the best part was when the boat crew yelled, ‘GO! GO! GO!’ and we hit the water in a fevered rush to get a glance at nature’s gentle giants.”

These new eco-tourism trips organized and run by SRI not only give the general public an opportunity to be a part of a real scientific project, but also serve to heighten awareness of an endangered species. During the trip, participants even get to tag their own Whale Shark with a visual ID tag. On some trips, participants are privileged to witness the deployment of a satellite tag. Once deployed, the satellite tag transmits information back to the SRI scientists so that while on the trip, participants can track their shark.

“It didn’t hit me how awe-inspiring this was until I was in the water swimming with a Whale Shark,” says Julie. “At first I was a bit apprehensive about being so close to it, but that quickly changed. It was mesmerizing to watch this huge shark glide through the water so gracefully, and with so little effort, as I struggled to kick faster to keep up with it. The only thing I could do once I got out of the water was to think about what an amazing opportunity I had been given to swim alongside this magnificent creature.”

After some initial training from SRI team members, the participants are ready to go. Jim Engel, the owner of Utila Lodge and the on-site Director of Operations for SRI coordinates each expedition. Each morning the boat departs from the lodge and returns in the late afternoon following a day of diving and research.

For two days during the week, the group had patiently, but fruitlessly, searched for Whale Sharks. They departed the next day in silence, with the sun beating down and the seas calm and quiet. Everyone on board was assigned the job of lookout. They were searching for the tell-tale signs of a Whale Shark, which include surface feeding birds and a school of feeding Blackfin Tuna in a frenzy of activity at the surface. Then, suddenly, the group spotted a disturbance in the water, just off the port bow.

“Birds and bonitos!” cries Willy, the boat captain, discovering a Whale Shark in the middle of the feeding frenzy and getting its fair share of food. A surge of adrenaline raced through the group. A visual tag was deployed and a tissue sample was taken. The moment erased the memories of the previous two day’s futile efforts. And it was just the beginning. Two more Whale Sharks were spotted and tagged that day. It was such a success that the group was still buzzing with excitement several hours later at dinner.

To see the faces of participants after getting out of the water following a Whale Shark encounter says it all. They get such a rewarding feeling knowing that they have seen Whale Sharks, while contributing to a worthwhile project.