LIHUE— The entangled juvenile whale shark spotted four days ago off Maui’s south shore could be cruising through Kauai waters and experts are asking ocean users to keep an eye out.
“Whale Sharks are known to migrate over oceans,” said Maria Harvey, director and chief research coordinator for Hawaii Uncharted Collective, a nonprofit organization that stepped onto the scene in the summer of 2017 and began charting whale sharks around the Hawaiian Islands the following fall.
Harvey continued: “The fact that it’s last sighted on Maui means there’s a very high potential (it could be sighted on Kauai).”
The whale shark was first reported on July 8 off Maui’s Olowalu Beach with heavy gauge line wrapped around the gills in front of the pectoral fins.
It was seen again by several commercial snorkel and dive tour companies on July 12 on the backside of Molokini, off Maui’s south shore, roughly 25 miles away from the original sighting.
That was the last time anyone reported a sighting of the shark according to the state Department of Land and Natural Resources, Harvey and Ed Lyman of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration’s Marine Mammal Health and Stranding Response Program.
“It could take a while for another sighting,” Harvey said, “if we get another sighting.”
2017 was the last time an entangled whale shark was sighted in the Hawaiian Islands, and the shark traveled from Hawaii Island to Kauai before it was sighted again — more than two months later.
Boat operators on Hawaii Island cut through most of the line that was wrapped around the 2017 entangled whale shark’s midsection and staff members with Kauai Sea Tours cut the rest of the line when the shark was spotted off Kauai.
The juvenile whale shark’s entanglement is “almost identical” to the 2017 entanglement and Lyman said if the shark cooperates, his team could mount a response and cut the shark free.
“If someone finds the shark and it stays on the surface, we could locate it and cut it free,” Lyman said. “But it has to act like a whale, get close to the surface.”
Whale sharks don’t have to surface to breathe, Harvey and Lyman pointed out, and it can be hard to help an animal that can stay invisible for so long.
“It could be sixty feet below any boat at any time,” Harvey said. “It has to hang near the surface.”
This whale shark seems to be a bit skittish, too, according to analyzing of the video and photos of the encounters with the entangled animal.
“I’m not saying the behavior won’t change, but it does seem easily spooked,” Harvey said. “I’ve had some whale sharks in the islands that’ll hang out near by boat for two or three hours, though. It depends.”
The wrap looks like it’s cutting into the animal and based on photographs experts are saying it’s a life-threatening entanglement.
Initial observations also indicate the animal may be emaciated, but Harvey pointed out whale shark juveniles usually have a “longer, skinnier look about them”.
“Being a juvenile, though, it’s continually growing and will eventually grow into that (entanglement line), and that’ll be life-threatening,” Harvey said. “It’s hard to say if it’ll be in one week or in two months.”
Whale sharks can survive with the entanglements, however it’s a dice roll situation that can turn deadly quickly.
Experts don’t know where the whale shark picked up the entanglement, and the 2017 entangled whale shark’s gear wasn’t collected for research.
“It could be active fishing gear or derelict fishing gear, derelict trash — it could be coming from anywhere,” Harvey said.
She continued: “The whale sharks travel thousands of miles, we’re hoping to start tagging this year so we can get a better picture of where they’re traveling.”
For now, the entanglement network across the Hawaiian Islands is on high alert and keeping eyes peeled for the shark and any sighting reports should go first to Ed Lyman and the NOAA Marine Mammal Health and Stranding Response Program.
“The more eyes we have the better, and the better chance we have to resight this animal,” Harvey said.
Anyone who sees the animal should take photos, if possible, and send them to firstname.lastname@example.org or online at hawaiiuncharted.org.
Jessica Else, environment reporter, can be reached at 245-0452 or at email@example.com