PALM HARBOR, FL -- It's no secret that tales of "the big fish that got away" are often met with skepticism. But, two local scuba divers have the video to prove that their rare, once-in-a-lifetime encounter with a 25 foot-long whale shark was the real deal.
"It was unbelievable. The shark was just breathtaking. It was so big, it was hard to comprehend. The sheer size of it was unbelievable," said Brennan Russell, a divemaster who works at Palm Harbor's Tanked Up Scuba Center.
Russell and divemaster candidate Kathy Allison were accompanying six customers on a scuba diving trip in the Gulf of Mexico on the morning of July 1, when they encountered the huge shark.
"Captain Tim", who pilots Tanked Up Scuba Center's 30 foot-long boat, knows a thing or two when it comes to fish; he's been piloting boats since he was seven years-old. He quickly realized this was no ordinary fish.
"One of the crew members saw a fin and said, 'Oh look, dolphin!' Upon closer examination, it wasn't a dolphin. I could tell just by the dorsal fin and the tail sticking up that we had quite the experience ahead of us."
Captain Tim moved the boat a bit closer to get a better look.
"Everybody was just awestricken, jumping around, saying, 'Yay, whoo, hoo!' It was a good time," he said.
The crew guessed that the shark was about 25 feet long because it spanned almost the entire length of the 30-foot boat. A video camera recorded the shark as it swam near the boat. Then, Allison and Russell dove in the water for a closer look (see video in photo section).
When Allison saw the shark for the first time underwater, she thought to herself, "What have I done? I jumped in front of it in his direction. It got right at me and I realized I need to get out of the way," she said. "It was amazing and intimidating. I knew it was a once in a lifetime opportunity."
Whale sharks, which are found in tropical waters, are sometimes referred to as "gentle giants" because they're docile. They've even been known to allow swimmers to hitch a ride according to National Geographic.com.
"He was just moseying right along, not hurrying anybody. It was really cool to see him that close and to have that encounter," said Russell.
Captain Tim got to watch the divers and the big fish from the boat.
"The shark was so big and his tail just moved nice and slow, which made you think, 'Oh, he's not going that fast'. But, the people in the water were swimming as fast as they could and they couldn't keep up with him," he said.
Captain Tim, Allison and Russell hope they encounter the whale shark again, although the chances of that actually happening are slim.
"It's a big ocean and they're few and far between," said Allison.
"I don't think it's going to happen ever again. We hit it big in the lottery as far as I'm concerned, said Russell.
Fortunately, whale sharks are plankton eaters, but with Shark Week scheduled for next month, this is a good story to whet your appetite!
Editor's Note: This article ran in the Palm Harbor Patch