Mote Marine Lab needs your help to find whale sharks - WJBF-TV ABC 6 Augusta-Aiken

Mote Marine Lab needs your help to find whale sharks

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Courtesy: Mote Marine Laboratory Courtesy: Mote Marine Laboratory

They are the largest fish in the world: whale sharks! And Mote Marine scientists need help finding them.

One of these harmless giants was spotted off the coast of Venice last month, and scientists are eager to know if more are around.

Scientists say there's still a lot to learn about these elusive creatures.

It's very rare to find them in the waters off southwest Florida, so if some are hanging around here, scientists want to know why.

With their polka-dotted bodies they're unmistakable, but don't let the big fin fool you, whale sharks are harmless.

"They're the largest fish that's ever existed," said Dr. Robert Hueter from Mote Marine Lab.

Hueter is an expert on whale sharks.

He says these elegant giants eat plankton. They can grow to around 45 feet in length and weigh several tons.

A pod of whale sharks was spotted in the waters off Sarasota in 2010, and one creature was seen last month off the coast of Venice. But Hueter says overall, it's rare to see whale sharks in these parts.

"We see them so sporadically that we're trying to figure out what their cycle is here," he said.

Dr. Hueter says whale sharks are known to swim as close as a mile from shore, but scientists don't know much about their behavior in this area of the Gulf, so they're hoping you can help.

Mote Marine lab is asking boaters to keep an eye out. The scientists want to tag them to learn more about their migrating patterns in this area of the gulf.

Hueter said, "[We can] take that data and compare it to other sightings and start to build up an understanding of where these animals are off the coast, what their cycles are, when they appear, how many animals, what their behavior is , these are things we can't possibly do ourselves."

But Hueter says if you're lucky enough to see one, savor the moment.

"It's one of the spectacles of nature to see an animal that big," said Hueter. "People who are out there that see whale sharks, take the time to enjoy this. You'll probably never see it the rest of your life."

And after you're done soaking in the experience, be sure to tell a scientist about it.

Officials want as many details as you can provide- the time, date, number of whale sharks, and a precise location if possible.

If you're able to take pictures, that'd be great too.

If you're lucky to spot these whale sharks, call Mote's Center for Shark Research at 941-388-1827.

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