OCEAN CITY — For the second time in a week, a rare whale shark, the largest fish in the world, was spotted off the coast of Ocean City and this time lucky observers actually got to jump in the ocean and swim with the majestic creature.
Local angler Josh Schleupner of Hebron and his family, including his wife, in-laws and three sons, were out for an offshore fishing trip aboard the Moore Bills out of the Ocean City Fishing Center on the Fourth of July when they were treated to a rare spectacle at this latitude. The Moore Bills had spent most of the morning trolling for tuna with no luck when an enormous whale shark came calling.
“It was pretty amazing,” said Schleupner this week. “We were out on the Moore Bills and ironically Hooked On OC was out there with us filming. We were just trolling and hoping to catch a couple of tuna but we hadn’t seen anything all day.”
Whale sharks are considered the true giants of the ocean. They are the largest fish in the world and certainly the largest shark species. The biggest grow to about 65 feet, but the average is around 40 feet and about 27,000 pounds. They are docile creatures and filter feeders, largely plankton and other small fish, and pose no threats to humans. With the fishing going slow and a massive whale shark visiting the boat, Schleupner and his son did not miss the rare opportunity.
“I think the captain saw it first,” he said. “It came right up to the boat. We were taking pictures and my oldest son Adam said he wanted to jump in. By the time he got his mask on, it had moved away, but then it came right back to the boat. I grabbed my mask and jumped right in also.”
Whale sharks are fairly common sights in the warmer waters of the Caribbean and the southern hemisphere, but they are fairly rare this far north. Schleupner said he never expected to see one while fishing off the coast of Ocean City, much less swim with one.
“I swam up to it but it was harder than I thought, especially holding the camera,” he said. “It was so majestic. Never in my life did I expect to have the chance to swim with one of these majestic creatures, especially not off the coast of Ocean City.”
Schleupner said he and the captain and crew on the Moore Bills speculated as to the whale shark’s size, and while it certainly wasn’t the largest ever witnessed, it was on the higher end of the size spectrum.
“It was pretty big,” he said. “We were guessing it was probably around 40 feet. When you get in the water and get right up to it, you begin to realize just how big this creature is. When we jumped in, it was hard to see him because it was dark and it was camouflaged somewhat. It was wild to see something so big in the water.”
While Schleupner and his son, along with the rest of the family and the crew on the Moore Bills, relished the rare encounter with the massive whale shark, the shark itself didn’t seem to share the enthusiasm.
“Even when I touched it, it didn’t flinch or anything because it was so big,” he said. “I ran my hand down its back. When I was swimming back to the boat, I looked down for another glimpse but never saw it again.”
Because whale sharks are docile and largely harmless, Schleupner said he had no trepidation about joining his oldest son in a rare opportunity to swim with one.
“I never had any fear or anything like that,” he said. “They are just gentle, docile giants. It was pretty surreal. It didn’t really sink in until I was back in the boat and we started trolling again. We were talking about it and we all agreed we don’t think anybody has had the opportunity to swim with and touch a whale shark in Ocean City.”
The Schleupner’s rare encounter with a whale shark off the coast of Ocean City on Tuesday was the second in about a week off the coast of the resort. Last week, Captain Steve Moore of Stalker Sportfishing Charters was out in the canyons off the resort coast for an overnight fishing trip when a big whale shark came visiting around 12:15 a.m. Moore said with the fishing slow, he was catching a little sleep when a crewmember awoke him to report the whale shark swimming behind the boat. Moore said last week the whale shark swam up to the boat and rubbed its nose down the side of the vessel on the port side before swimming to the back of the boat and around to the starboard side. The visit lasted about a minute, or long enough to get some great video footage, and then disappeared again into the darkness.