“Look at this thing!”
“Are you kidding me?”
These are just a few of the phrases that the people aboard the Privateer exclaimed when they got a surprise visit from a massive whale shark off the coast of San Diego.
The moment was captured by Captain Bryan McGrory, who steers the ship for San Diego Whale Watch. It happened on Labor Day with 149 people aboard who were able to share the unique experience.
“[This is] extremely rare,” said McGrory. “I’m thinking it’s a once-in-a-lifetime encounter.”
McGrory explained that the group was looking at a blue whale, thinking that would be the best part of the trip. Moments later, someone on the bow began pointing out at the water. That’s when McGrory noticed a “big mass in the water.”
“We didn’t know what it was at the time. We were thinking minke whale, basking shark, and then we saw all the spots of the whale shark,” said McGrory.
“So we put the boat into neutral and it approached us, came up to the surface, circled the boat.” said McGrory. “Everyone was losing it.”
McGrory estimated the whale shark was about 25-feet long. According to John Hyde, Ph.D., with NOAA Fisheries, this size would be considered “subadult” or about half-way done growing. In general, whale sharks can be up to 40-feet long.
San Diego Whale Watch takes groups out to the ocean anywhere from five to six days each week, as long as the weather allows. McGrory has been working with the whale watching company for four years, and has never seen one of these locally.
“I never leave the harbor thinking I’m going to see a whale shark, but that’s the beauty of the ocean,” said McGrory.
“Typically, these sightings are during El Niño or similar events,” said Hyde in an email to NBC 7. “We’re currently in a La Niña pattern, which is typically cooler ocean temperature but this year we’ve seen the waters warm up similar to what we see during El Niño years.”
Hyde added that while this is very rare, it is not the first time these sharks have been spotted in southern California.
They are considered the largest fish in the ocean. The best part? They have no interest in humans and prefer eating small organisms like plankton, according to NOAA.