A group of divers off Hillsboro Inlet in northern Broward County got the treat of a lifetime Sunday morning: an hour-long, face-to-face encounter with a whale shark estimated at 30 feet long. And they have photos to prove it.
“It wasn’t like we saw a whale shark — we hung out with a whale shark. It was amazing,” said Craig Dietrich, an underwater photographer and dive instructor with Pompano Beach Dive Center.
Dietrich and fellow divers had just emerged aboard the Sea Dog Diver when the boat received a call from another dive boat, the Miss Conduct, that it had a group of snorkelers in the water with a large whale shark, but no one on board had a camera.
The Sea Dog Diver rushed to join the other boat about a mile south of the inlet, where they saw the shark’s large dorsal fin sticking up above the surface. Everyone jumped in, and Dietrich had his underwater camera. Whale sharks are the largest species of fish in the sea.
“There were about 25 of us in the water. He was just swimming and eating,” Dietrich said. “He kept swimming right up to us, just completely comfortable with us. This was everybody’s dream.”
As Dietrich snapped away, he estimated the shark at 30 feet long — because it appeared longer than the 28-foot dive boat above it. He said the encounter lasted about an hour and 10 minutes before the giant brown creature with white spots moseyed away.
Afterward, the divers hooted, hollered and high-fived. For Dietrich and the others, it was their first live view of a whale shark.
“We were like ‘omigod,’ ” he said. “It was a big deal.”
Sightings of whale sharks off Florida’s southeast coast are “rare, but not unprecedented, nothing new to science,” according to Bob Hueter, senior scientist and director of the Center for Shark Research at Mote Marine Laboratory in Sarasota.
Hueter said he received another report of a whale shark off Hillsboro Inlet on Nov. 16 from fishermen targeting dolphin in 1,600 feet of water. Back in 2007, a Pompano Beach dive operator found a 30-foot-long dead whale shark in the same general area.
Whale sharks, which can grow to 40 feet, are plankton eaters that pose no danger to people. They feed by cruising near the surface and sucking in plankton and small fish that are in the path of their gaping mouths.
Federal law prohibits harvesting them. They are known to roam the world’s oceans, and a large aggregation has been documented off Mexico’s northern Yucatan region during the summer months. Hueter said there’s a good chance last Sunday’s shark was a member of that group, some of which have been tagged by scientists. He would like to see Dietrich’s photos to check.
Also, Hueter, said tuna fishermen off the coast of Cuba have reported seeing whale sharks during the months of October and November, so it’s not a stretch for them to appear in the Straits of Florida.
Dietrich said the experience demonstrates the array of diving opportunities in South Florida.
“I’m excited,” he said. “It’s great to promote the diving industry.”