A clearly annoyed whale shark appeared to attempt to swallow a diver. Uncharacteristic behavior by a known “gentle giant.”
A 62-year-old female advanced open-water diver was on a liveaboard dive cruise. On this particular day, two dives were made at a single dive site where there were a number of large marine life including four whale sharks, a pod of dolphins and sail fish. A dive safety briefing was given on the day of the dive regarding safety around marine creatures.
During the first dive there were no observations of odd behavior by any of the whale sharks. On the second dive, at around 11:00 a.m., the diver made a backwards roll entry and, upon entering the sea, hit one of the whale sharks. The group of 10 divers, (two guides and eight recreational divers), were spread out in the area, at a depth of 10 meters (33 ft), allowing the whale sharks to swim between them.
During the dive, the largest whale shark in the area began to act differently. It appeared to be swimming directly at divers with its mouth wide open. As it would get close, the shark would open its mouth but multiple divers were able to swim out of its path. After being in the water for 40 minutes, the diver was attempting to photograph this interaction of the whale shark and the other divers, when the whale shark turned suddenly towards her.
The diver recalls being hit hard by the whale shark. Then the diver was sucked into the mouth of the whale shark — head first — and half-swallowed up to her thighs. The diver struggled to escape the whale shark’s mouth for a brief moment before the shark spat the diver out, forcefully spinning her about in the water.
She then swam over to one of the dive guides. Upon assessment this diver had a minor abrasion to the back of her hand.
Whale sharks are the world’s largest fish and are widely known as gentle giants. They are filter feeders — not predators — unlike most other sharks. For many divers, diving alongside a whale shark in its natural habitat is a once-in-a-lifetime experience.
Nonetheless, divers should always be aware of the potential risk when diving around marine animals, especially large marine creatures such as sharks, regardless of preconceived notions of danger or safety. Most animals have the potential to inflict harm if they are distressed or threatened. As divers, we are visitors to their environment and should respect their space. If an animal is clearly distressed and poses a likely threat then divers should give it more space. If an animal continues to be a danger then the dive should be ended calmly, with a normal ascent to ensure safety, as this diver made.
Lastly, always be aware of the surroundings at an entry point. Look before entering the water.
Tyler Hart & Peter Buzzacott