A marine inspector for the Israel Nature and Parks Authority sailed out on Tuesday morning to look for abandoned fishing traps in the Gulf of Eilat – and was surprised to find a whale shark.
These sharks have been sighted on at least 20 different occasions in the gulf, and the Nature Authority and the “Sharks in Israel” Facebook group say they are at least four individual sharks.
The whale shark is considered endangered, meaning it is at risk of extinction, and is considered to be the largest fish in the world – even though it is smaller than many whales, which are mammals.
Mature whale sharks can reach a length of 12 meters (over 39 feet) but those that reach the waters off Eilat are usually relatively young and are only three to four meters long.
Adi Barash, the chairwoman of the “Sharks in Israel” nonprofit group and a doctoral student in marine sciences at the University of Haifa, said this is the best year ever since shark observations began five years ago.
A shark identification project began two years ago, using the spots on their bodies and scratches on their fins to identity them. This is how she can say with almost complete certainty that at least four different such sharks have been spotted so far this year.
Barash said that this year is has had a good beginning for the shark identification project, with an exceptional number of sightings of whale sharks.
“We collect the pictures and use the pattern of the fish’s spots to identify the individuals and match them with the global database. This is how we can track sightings of the same shark in Egypt, Jordan or Saudi Arabia,” she added.
Whale sharks are not a danger to people, and swimmers and divers can keep an eye out for them.
“You need luck, you can look for birds around them. You need to keep your distance, not to come too close and not to block them. The bigger the shark, the bigger the space you need to give them,” said Barash.