PENSACOLA BEACH, Fla. (WALA)_-- On the very first day of shark week divers got up close and personal with the biggest fish in the ocean near Pensacola Beach.
The breathtaking encounter happened just two miles off shore when divers on a Shark Quest Adventures charter met eye to eye with a whale shark Sunday morning.
“It really blew me out of the water,” said Lucas Doran, a Shark Quest dive instructor.
“It was amazing, you don’t see a lot of whale sharks in Pensacola, especially that close to the beach, we were only about two miles off the beach,” said Isaac Jones, Shark Quest Owner.
The 20 foot fish swam all around them, even as they dived in, getting close enough to touch it.
“It’s presence makes you feel small. I swam up to it. I was the first to reach it. It really had me sort of sit back for the moment,” said Doran.
For 20 minutes they marveled at its beauty even learning a lesson or two.
“I didn't realize what was behind me and then I see this big tail and it kind of gave me a little push and I was like ok mind the space,” said Kara Redford, a Diver who was on the charter.
Jill Hendon, a research scientist with the University of Southern Mississippi says it’s not rare to find whale sharks in our northern Gulf of Mexico waters, especially this time of year, “There’s typically an aggregation that forms right at the continental shelf break right at the summertime and there will be hundreds that sometimes gather together.
But Hendon says seeing them so close to shore is not so common.
“There must be something bringing them closer to shore that’s driving that behavior because it’s not every year that you see them that close.”
Hendon says the last time she’s heard of a sighting so close was back in 2009.
She says it’ll be interesting to see if there’s any kind of fish spawn or small bait fish in the water that whale sharks typically target this time of year.
She hopes the videos and pictures taken by Shark Quest will help them learn more about the whale shark they encountered, like where it came from and whether it's been seen here before by looking at its spots.
Jones says this is just an example of the incredible things they see below the surface at Shark Quest Adventures and he'd love to help more people experience diving.
If you're interested visit the Shark Quest team here.
The Gulf Coast Research Laboratory’s whale shark sightings in the Northern Gulf of Mexico over the last two decades can be found here.
If you encounter a whale shark for yourself, help them learn more by filling this survey.