"To everyone sitting on their couches watching Shark Week: that's cool I guess. I prefer to go out, jump in and ride them like a horse." Steve Fernandez did just that with a 20,000lbs whale shark off the coast of New York City.
Whale Sharks are the largest fish in the ocean, growing up to 41 feet long and up to 47,000lbs in weight. Their mouths are full of small teeth they use to filter algae, krill and plankton out of the water, like a whale. They're known for their friendly disposition and curious demeanor. Sightings of them are relatively rare, but they often interact with human swimmers when we do manage to get in the water with them.
Those encounters more frequently occur in tropical waters, particularly off the Yucatan peninsula in Mexico. The waters off New York are at the northern boundary of their range, so this guy was a rare treat.
Steve Fernandez was out fishing when he came across this whale shark, then decided to jump in the water for a swim. We asked him about the experience.
IndefinitelyWild: How'd you find yourself on the ocean with a whale shark?
Steve: I grew up in Breezy Point and have spent my entire life on the ocean. My obsession is tuna fishing and I am lucky enough to have the opportunity to fish the offshore waters of New York on a weekly basis.
IW: Ever come across a whale shark before?
Steve: I haven't, but I always told myself that, if I did, I would take a swim with it. This one happened upon us while we were fishing and started eating the chunks of fish we were tossing off the boat.
IW: What do you mean when you say you "rode" it?
Steve: I swam out to the whale shark about 30 feet off the back of the boat. I then swam above it and held its fin as it rose to the surface, eating our bait. I had both my feet on the back of the shark. He sure didn't mind and just wanted to keep gorging on the free meal!
Steve is something of a famous shark fisherman, catching a Great White just off New York's Rockaway Beach during a recent tournament.
IW: Were you scared?
Steve: Not at all. There are certain sharks I would not get in the water with, but fortunately a whale shark is one of the many I would swim with. I am pretty familiar with most of the marine life we come across, so that helps ease the nerves. The amount of adrenaline I had running through my veins far surpassed any nerved I may have had from the nearby non-friendly sharks.
IW: Did the shark respond to your presence?
Steve: It actually did, which was one of the reasons why it was so amazing! It slowed down, its eyes rotated towards me as I swam up to it and, as soon as I grabbed onto it, it went right back to eating the chunks of fish, not a hair of concern that I was nearby and touching it. They are very curious and docile and one of the easiest fish to swim with in the ocean.
IW: What did it feel like to be in the water with such a large animal?
Steve: It was just something I have always wanted to do and was one of the many time I've been left in awe while out on the ocean. It was an intelligent creature, 500 times my size and we both looked at each other while we floated in crystal clear water that was over half a mile deep. He knew I was there and that I meant no harm. Honestly, after looking me over, he paid no attention to me.
It's things like this that keep me going out on the ocean week after week, to have a connection like that with another species is just amazing. Just imaginine the things it has seen in its lifetime patrolling the deep.
Editor's Note: While whale sharks are famously friendly creatures, approaching such a large, powerful animal closely is extremely dangerous. Touching one is an even worse idea and is thought to damage the delicate mucus membranes on their skin. Do not try this at home.
IndefinitelyWild is a new publication about adventure travel in the outdoors, the vehicles and gear that get us there and the people we meet along the way. Follow us on Facebook,Twitter and Instagram.