While free-diving off the shore of Kaunolū on Hawaii’s island of Lanai, a Hawaiian family saw something they’d never seen before: A young whale shark.
Even for people who spend a lot of time in Hawaii’s crystalline waters, this endangered animal—the world’s largest fish—is a rare and joyous sight.
But the initial wonder faded as Kapua Kawelo and her husband Joby Rohrer, both of whom work on endangered species for the O‘ahu Army Natural Resources Program, noticed the creature had a thick, heavy rope wrapped around its neck.
“It looked really sore,” says Rohrer. “There were these three scars from where the rope rubbed into the ridges on her back. The rope had cut probably three inches into her pectoral fin.”
After filming the shark for a while, the family decided to try to cut the rope with a dive knife. Using only his experience as a free-diver and a small, serrated dive blade, Rohrer dove down again and again at depths of 50 to 60 feet for spans of up to two minutes at a time.
Finally, after about half an hour of careful work and a little bit of support from the couple’s son Kanehoalani and from Jon Sprague, a wildlife control manager for Pūlama Lānaʻi, the shark was free.
Then the family’s 15-year-old daughter, Ho’ohila, swam the 150-pounds worth of rope to shore.
“It’s a family story,” says Kapua.
Will It Survive?
Clearly, the whale shark is better off now that it’s without “an unbreakable rope lei,” as Kapua puts it. But will the whale shark be able to recover from the ordeal?
According to Brad Norman, a National Geographic Explorer and one of the world’s foremost experts on whale sharks, you can tell the rope had been strangling the animal for at least a few months because of all the barnacles that had colonized it. Hawaii’s Department of Land and Natural Resources had actually been alerted to the shark’s plight in mid-July by SCUBA divers and had since sent out a call for people to report any future sightings.
But Norman says that, all things considered, the shark appeared to be in pretty good condition. He also estimated that the animal was at least 20 years old, giving it excellent odds to survive.
“Although globally, all whale sharks are endangered and threatened with extinction,” says Norman. “If we don’t reverse the declining trend in their numbers, it’s dire for the species as a whole.”
What’s more, lost fishing gear doesn’t just harm whale sharks. According to a recent report by World Animal Protection, more than 700,000 tons of new gear enters earth’s oceans each year. (Read National Geographic’s special series “Planet or Plastic”)
Did The Whale Shark Come To Humans For Help?
Whale sharks typically swim away when they’re touched, says Norman, so the fact that the shark remained even after Rohrer began to saw at the rope is evidence that it was comfortable with the situation. Norman calls it “amazing to see.”
“The shark appears to allow the diver to assist,” says Norman, “seemingly knowing he's helping.”
Kapua credits her husband’s zen-like demeanor and heroic free-diving ability for allowing him to be able to free the entangled shark.
“We all wanted to help but none of us could hold our breath that long,” she says.
But there was also something else about the experience, she says. In Hawaiian mythology, ancestors sometimes come back as guardian animals, called ʻaumakua. These guardians are thought to protect families, who also must help protect them.
“And we’ve never seen a whale shark before but, just like native peoples around the world, you feel like you have a special connection to the resources that surround you and your family,” says Kapua.
“I like to think that we were there for a reason and that the least we could do for having that amazing experience, seeing that beautiful creature, was to help it survive.”