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Whale sharks spotted near Sarasota

10:13 AM, Jun 21, 2010   |    comments
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Sarasota, Florida - Mote Marine scientists have spotted a large group of whale sharks about 23 miles offshore, southwest of Sarasota.

The scientists first learned of the sharks' presence after receiving several dozen sighting reports, according to Dr. Bob Hueter, the director of the Center for Shark Research at Mote Marine Laboratory.

On Friday, scientists went out into the Gulf to see for themselves.

Hueter says, "We mounted an expedition off Sarasota and we had reports coming in off the water that a group of sharks were out there. Sure enough when we got out there to the spot -- about 23 miles out -- there were not one to two whales there, but 10 of them in one area. Very unusual for this coast."

The scientists spent four hours with the sharks. Hueter says they were finding food and appeared to be healthy.

Still, the scientists wonder whether large fish such as whale sharks might be changing their patterns due the Deepwater Horizon Oil spill out in the Gulf.

"I suspect that these sharks have been displaced by the oil out in the deep Gulf and they're coming up more closer to the beaches, more up on what we call the continental shelf," Hueter explains.

And Hueter says it's not just whale sharks, either. "When you combine all these sightings -- whale sharks, sailfish, tuna, and so on -- closer to shore with the fact that this oil is spinning out there about a hundred miles out, it just leads us to believe that maybe these animals are getting displaced and coming in closer to our coast."

The scientist says you don't need to be worried when you're out at the beach or boating either. He says whale sharks are not a threat.

"It's not dangerous for a boater. As a matter of fact, the whale sharks are very gentle, very graceful, even though they're 30 feet long or so. But they can be very curious and they can come up alongside a boat. A lot of people have been going out to swim with them."

Dr. Hueter says swimming with them is OK, but touching them is not, because it can interfere with their feeding. "They're the largest animal in the sea and unlike some of their shark cousins, they're not predators."

The whale sharks they watched fed on large clusters of what appeared to be fish eggs and other plankton. Whale sharks are plankton-eaters that strain food from the surface using a fine mesh of tissue in their throats.

Of the 10 whale sharks, Hueter and his team tagged two males and one female, each more than 20 feet long. One of the sharks was a 23-foot female named "Sara" that Mote scientists had previously satellite-tagged back on May 28.

Now the researchers - and you - can follow "Sara" in real time by clicking here.

During her second tagging Friday, she was fitted with another kind of tag that will store location data for 180 days before it "pops up," floats to the surface and sends the data to Mote scientists via satellite. This tag is designed to last longer than the real-time tag and it will store data on water temperatures and how deep Sara dives, building a richer picture of her habits and environment in the wild.

"Sara is wearing a lot of jewelry now," Hueter said. "Having two tags is an insurance policy to make sure we get long-term data from her."

Hueter added that Sara's tagging may provide highly valuable information: "She looked pudgy, so she might be pregnant. If she is, we hope she will lead us to her pupping grounds - the area where she gives birth."

Learning where whale sharks mate and give birth is crucial to protecting the important habitats that support the survival and reproduction of this rare, highly vulnerable species.

If you see a large shark or large fish species abnormally close to shore, or if you see a large shark or large fish that appears to be in distress or behaving abnormally you're being asked to contact Mote's Center for Shark Research at 941-388-1827.

Join discussions related to the disaster in the gulf on MomsLikeMe.com.

Tammie Fields, 10 Connects

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