When a team of recreational scuba divers spotted four whale sharks stuck in a fishing net, the animals were veiled by a thin mesh netting. Trapped just off the coast of Cenderawasih Bay, West Papau, Indonesia, the huge fish were freed after a heroic effort to coax them out of the net.
Whale sharks are the largest fish on Earth. The four sharks seen in the video were still juveniles, but adults can grow to be the size of a school bus.
The endangered whale sharks were trapped in what appeared to be a midsized trawl net, a type of net typically used to catch large groups of fish or shrimp. In this case it was likely used to trap anchovies.
Underwater video shows the wide-eyed sharks with gaping mouths struggling to wiggle free. Working slowly, the divers lowered the net from top to bottom, pulling the veil aside so that the sharks can swim free. When two sharks remained in the bottom of the net, the divers had to eventually unwrap the sharks and guide them out of the net's opening. (Read about why whale sharks are disappearing.)
Whale sharks are an endangered species, and commercial fishing presents one of their most eminent threats. Bycatch, which refers to the incidental capture of marine species during commercial fishing, threatens a number of large marine species such as turtles and dolphins.
"I was so happy to see them freed," said Margot Stiles, chief of strategy for the ocean advocacy group Oceana. "Usually that's not the case."
Stiles explained that nets like these are typically used to catch smaller-sized fish like sardines, and the sharks were possibly attracted to a potential source of prey. The sharks are also juveniles, meaning they're highly curious of objects in their surroundings. (Read about two whale sharks rescued from poachers.)
While bycatch can be a problem for all species of sharks, Stiles explained that whale sharks in particular are most commonly victims of direct hunting. The species is poached for their meat and skin, even though they are protected under both Indonesian and international law.
After the sharks are freed, they can be seen swimming among the divers. It's highly unlikely that they're expressing some form of gratitude, but whale sharks are known to be one of the most docile of sharks. As their name might suggest, some of their characteristics are more similar to whales than the sharks to which they belong. The large animals use a method known as filter feeding to passively let food enter their mouths.
In a statement to Caters News, the divers noted the complex line between helping trapped marine life and making sure local fishers don't lose their livelihood. If the nets are opened and released, the day's catch will be lost, and if they don't, the sharks could die.
"On that particular day, we were close to the fishing boat and offered our help to release the shark’s without losing the whole night's catch, our divers pulling down the nets a little and pushing up the sharks," one diver said in a statement.