The world’s largest fish had never been reported as visiting the Mediterranean Sea until yesterday (8 December) – when a whale shark caught in a tuna trap in the Strait of Gibraltar was released by scuba divers.
The surprising rescue operation was led by divers with CECAM (Centre for the Study & Conservation of Marine Animals) based in Ceuta, a Spanish city on the northern tip of Morocco.
The whale shark, described as measuring 10-12m long, was caught in an almadraba, a traditional fish-net used in southern Spain and North Africa to catch bluefin tuna, bonito and swordfish. It is usually deployed as the fish migrate from the Atlantic into the Mediterranean to spawn, and again as they return, between February and July.
Almadraba divers who had gone to check the nets notified CECAM of their unusual discovery which, before the conservationists had taken a boat out to the site, was assumed must be a basking shark.
It took the CECAM and almadabra divers working together almost five hours to free the whale shark. The centre’s president Juan Carlos Rivas told local press that he had dived with the species before in the Maldives and Pacific Mexico, but described his latest unexpected encounter as “impressive, incredible – a unique experience”.
The reprieved whale shark appeared to be in no hurry to leave the divers’ company following the rescue. Because the species stays so close to the surface when feeding, Rivas commented that “it is very strange that it had not been seen before” in the area.
According to conservation body WWF: “With the exception of the Mediterranean Sea, whale sharks can be found in all temperate and tropical oceans around the world and migrate thousands of miles to different feeding grounds.”