A whale shark circles the Mohawk. / Peter Williamson, special to news-press.com
• Scientific name: Rhincodon typus
• Nickname: Domino, because whale sharks and dominos both have spots.
• Geographical distribution: Tropical and warm temperate seas, except the Mediterranean. In the Western Hemisphere, it occurs from New York through the Caribbean to central Brazil and from California to Chile.
• Habitat: This is an open-ocean fish that likes surface temperatures of 70-86 degrees.
• Size: Maximum size is thought to be about 45 feet.
• Life span: Unknown, but estimates range up to 60 years.
• Diet: Planktonic (microscopic) organisms and necktonic (larger free-swimming) prey such as small crustaceans and schooling fish.
Related link: Take an interactive tour of the Mohawk
Lee County’s newest and most famous artificial reef is loaded with fish, and this week, a member of the biggest fish species in the sea paid a visit to the site.
On Sunday, divers aboard Fantasea Scuba’s boat el Gavilan out of Port Charlotte took a swim with a whale shark that was cruising the 165-foot former Coast Guard cutter Mohawk in 90 feet of water 30 miles off Redfish Pass.
“Are you serious?” Mike Campbell, head of Lee County’s artificial reef program, said when he heard about the sighting. “That’s awesome. That’s incredible, man. I love that a local dive shop got to see it.”
On July 2, the county’s Marine Services Program and Reefmakers LLC, a company that specializes in sinking ships as artificial reefs, scuttled the Mohawk, now known as Mohawk Veterans Memorial Reef. Commissioned in 1935, the Mohawk served with distinction during World War II.
Within a week, divers and fishermen were reporting large numbers of fish and a diversity of species on the Mohawk.
“I had some guys fishing the Mohawk two weeks ago who caught blackfin tuna,” Campbell said. “There’s so much life on the reef. We’re freaking people out in other parts of the state. There are wrecks on the east coast that have been down for years and don’t have as much life on them.”
Although whale sharks inhabit all tropical and warm temperate seas except the Mediterranean, sightings are rare in most areas.
Whale sharks are usually solitary animals, but they congregate in numbers at feeding areas such as the northern Gulf of Mexico, Holbox, Mexico, Belize, Utila in the Bay Islands of Honduras, and the northwest coast of Cuba.
Sightings around oil rigs off Texas and Louisiana are relatively common, said Bob Hueter, director of Mote Marine Laboratory’s National Center for Shark Research, who has been studying the whale sharks of Holbox since 2003.
“They seem to be attracted by structure,” Hueter said. “We’re not sure whether or not they’re investigating for suitable food, maybe fish spawning or very small fish they’re considering feeding on.
“We don’t have oil rigs off Florida, but we have artificial reefs. This is not something I’ve heard about too often, but it’s consistent behavior with what they do in other places.”
El Gavilan got to the dive site with six divers aboard at about 9:30 a.m. Sunday.
“I had four divers in the water; the water was flat and clear; you could see the deck of the Mohawk from the surface,” Fantasea owner Capt. Jim Joseph said. “There were divers on the back of the boat getting ready to get in the water, and one said, ‘Wow, look at all those cobia.’ Another guy said, ‘Wow, look at that whale shark.’”
One of those divers was Capt. Pete Williamson, owner of Capt. Pete’s Diving Outfitters in Fort Myers.
“We got in the water, and the whale shark seemed to just be circling the wreck at about 40 feet below the surface,” Williamson said. “We spent the whole dive hanging with the shark.
“It wasn’t huge, about 20 feet. Later, somebody said, ‘It was kind of small.’ But nobody was complaining.
“What I kept saying, is I’ve been diving everywhere, places like Honduras and Mexico where you expect to see whale sharks, but I’ve never seen one,” Williamson said. “And then we see one in our own backyard.
“What an incredible day. We got more than we expected out of that dive.”