Scientists want reports of whale shark sightings

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Posted: Wednesday, May 22, 2013 5:15 pm | Updated: 4:41 pm, Fri Jun 13, 2014.

SARASOTA COUNTY - The world's biggest fish has been spotted in Suncoast waters, and now experts at Mote Marine Laboratory need your help to spot the whale shark again.

Earlier this month, a whale shark was spotted off the coast of Venice. These are absolutely massive creatures that can grow to more than 40 feet in length.

The good news is they are slow and perfectly harmless. The bad news is they are extremely rare, and that's why Mote scientists want to hear from you if you happen to spot one of them in our waters.

"We cannot be everywhere at once as scientists. The public though can help us a lot with our research by calling in when they see a whale shark," says Dr. Bob Hueter.

These enormous sharks have been known to top out around 24 tons, and feed on microscopic plankton. But just what exactly are they doing in our area? Well that’s what scientists would like to know, too. "We're trying to figure out their overall life cycle in the Gulf of Mexico and the Western Caribbean. This is just one part of that. This year we've had two sightings so far in this season. Previous years we've had several dozen. These are always very sporadic, one maybe two animals at a time," says Dr. Hueter.

While the chances of actually seeing one are slim, researchers say be prepared to lend a hand if you do. "We're asking the public to report those kinds of observations; the overall size of the shark, the time that they spend with them, certainly the location."

And while the sharks pose no threat to you or me, experts say the real danger could just be taking an encounter like this for granted. “I say embrace the moment. It can be really inspirational, this giant polka-dotted fish that won't harm a fly."

Dr. Hueter says it is ok to get in the water with the creatures if you see one, just stay about six feet away from it, don't touch it and take lots of pictures.

The lab is asking anyone who spotting a whale shark to call its Center for Shark Research at (941) 388-1827.

For more information on the Mote Shark Biology and Conservation Program, visit www.mote.org/sharks.

© 2014 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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