Whale shark sighting off SC coast

Michael Krivohlavek. Provided

The seas were flat. The water was peppered with cannonball jellyfish. The fishing had been lackluster.

Then a marvel appeared.

The bulbous head of a giant whale shark began nosing at the charter fishing boat Michael Krivohlavek was working on as a mate. The boat was little more than 30 miles off Charleston — well north of the tropical waters where the huge fish are usually found.

Oddly enough, Krivohlavek had been telling customers aboard about the whale sharks he had seen earlier off Central America, just chatting to pass the time. When the head emerged, the customers crowded the boat rail, so caught up in the moment they didn't realize that one of the fishing pole reels was chattering with a catch.

"Everybody said, 'Oh my gosh,'" the 21-year-old Mount Pleasant resident recalled about the sighting in October. "They couldn't take their eyes off him."

They followed rail to rail for about 20 minutes as the shark swam around the boat, leaving Krivohlavek to reel in the amberjack. 

Whale sharks are considered the largest fish in the ocean. They can be as long as a bus and weigh more than 30 tons. This one was at least 20 feet long.

They are docile enough that people occasionally have caught rides on them. However, the sharks are so rare in South Carolina waters that Mel Bell, the S.C. Department of Natural Resources fisheries management director, has never seen one offshore.

"They are rare, especially on the shelf (ledges offshore where anglers tend to fish)," said Bryan Frazier, a DNR scientist who works with sharks.

"If they are here I’d suspect they would be associated with the Gulf Stream or a warm water eddy from the stream," he said.

The mammoth fish are filter eaters, sucking up fish eggs and smaller bait fish. But they do feed on zooplankton such as jellies, he said.

They evidently are curious about boats, too. In Central American waters, the ones Krivohlavek has seen came up to check out the charter crafts he was aboard.

"Still, this is one of the coolest things I've seen out of Charleston," he said.

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Science and environment reporter. Author of Washing Our Hands in the Clouds.