Odd fish

Harmless whale shark sparks scare at Eilat beach

World’s largest fish species, which poses no danger to humans, appears amid Israelis swimmers in Red Sea

A whale shark swimming in the Red Sea off the coast of Eilat, July 2018. (Shani Aloush, Israel Nature and Parks Authority)
Illustrative: A whale shark swimming in the Red Sea off the coast of Eilat, in July 2018. (Shani Aloush, Israel Nature and Parks Authority)

A harmless whale shark sparked a scare at an Eilat beach on Saturday.

Video from the scene showed the shark’s fin ominously appearing above the surface of the water as swimmers shouted warnings.

“He’s going for that woman!” a beachgoer shouts in a video posted online. “She doesn’t notice it! My god.”

The sharks, the largest living species of fish, are filter feeders that mostly subsist on plankton and pose no danger to humans.

They are sometimes seen off Eilat’s coast in the Red Sea, but do not usually come so close to the city’s popular beaches.

An Israeli expert on sharks urged swimmers to avoid the animal for its own sake.

“The [feeding] season is at its height and they’re getting close to concentrations of plankton,” Adi Barash, head of the Sharks in Israel conservation organization, told the Ynet news site. “It’s very important to not get in its way, to not touch and not chase the shark. It’s fine to photograph and enjoy it.”

A whale shark was also spotted amid the coral reefs off Eilat’s coast in May. In 2019, four whale sharks were seen in the area in six weeks.

Whale sharks, which can reach 15 meters (50 feet) in length, weigh up to 34 tons (68,000 pounds) and live for 80 years. They are found in tropical seas all over the world.

Each whale shark has a unique pattern of white spots on its body.

Above: A whale shark seen of Eilat’s coast in July 2019.

Whale sharks are filter feeders, skimming plankton and small fish close to the surface and traveling great distances to find food. Their presence is seen as an indicator of healthy plankton populations.

But they are an endangered species, primarily because of fin fishing, in which their fins are cut off for the Asian food industry and they are left to die.

While fin fishing still goes on all over the world, conservationists in China have linked up with TV stars to campaign against shark fin soup and some couples are refusing to serve shark fin soup at weddings, all of which is raising awareness of the practice.

Whale sharks are also at risk of entanglement in fishing nets and of injury and death from passing ships, since they feed so close to the ocean surface. Last year, a large vessel killed a whale shark in Jordan.

It is not known how many whale sharks exist in the world, as data can only be based on sightings. However, their numbers are thought to be declining significantly.

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