Mote urges boaters to report whale shark sightings

Mote Marine Laboratory received a report of five whale sharks — Earth’s largest fish species — about 40 miles off Anna Maria Island last weekend, and Mote scientists are asking members of the public to report new sightings off Florida’s Gulf Coast immediately.

“It’s exciting that we are hearing reports of five whale sharks in one area, because it suggests they might be feeding on something in a special spot,” said Dr. Bob Hueter, Senior Scientist and Director of the Center for Shark Research at Mote.

Whale sharks sporadically visit Southwest Florida’s coastal waters, most likely to filter-feed on localized blooms of plankton or fish eggs. They are easily identified by their massive size, up to about 45 feet, and their polka dot coloration. “It’s important to understand where these sharks migrate, feed and carry out other key parts of their life cycles, so that resource managers can successfully protect them,” Hueter said. “We have placed satellite-linked tracking tags on numerous whale sharks at a major feeding aggregation off Mexico’s Yucatan Peninsula in the past decade, but it’s rarer that we can find and tag these huge fish off Florida’s Gulf Coast.”

If others are reported in the Gulf, Hueter and partners want to attach a special type of satellite tag to one or more of these gentle giants, to collect data on their geographic location and the temperatures and depths they encounter over a six-month period.

This tag trails behind the shark’s first dorsal fin on a short tether, and whenever the shark is at the surface, the tag transmits precise location data. Retrieving the tag will yield extensive data, but if it cannot be recovered, the scientists will still receive real-time GPS signals from the tag, revealing where the shark is traveling, along with summarized data on depth and temperature.

Please report any whale shark sightings in the Gulf of Mexico immediately from your boat or just after disembarking, within 24 hours at most, to Dr. Bob Hueter at Mote’s Center for Shark Research: 941-302-0976. Please note the number of whale sharks spotted, the date, time, location and exact GPS coordinates if possible.

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