Expert: Protect, don't molest whale sharks

By Randi Nissenbaum, Reporter
Last Updated: Sunday, June 14, 2015, 4:58 PM EDT

Bay area residents have been caught on camera riding whale sharks twice this month.

The first one took place in Clearwater. And last week near St. Pete Beach, a man filmed himself taking the ride.

With his snorkel on, Donnie Marsee jumped in the water near St. Pete Beach to capture up close video of a whale shark. The gentle giant was a sight Marsee never expected.

“I started screaming. I couldn’t believe that I was so lucky for it to come right next to me. I didn’t expect that,” said Marsee, watching the video of him on the shark.

A truly unbelievable sight that wasn’t quite enough for Marsee. The avid scuba diver wanted more.

“You know what? Why not just grab the dorsal fin? So I grabbed the dorsal fin and road him for two seconds,” he said.

In Marsee’s YouTube video it shows him hanging on to the fin and taking a ride. Marsee screamed with excitement throughout the video, clearly enjoying himself.

However, was this underwater cowboy committing a crime? Recently two other area residents were also caught on camera riding whale sharks near Clearwater Beach.

While it is illegal to ride manatees and dolphins, according to Eric Hovland Shark Guide at the Florida Aquarium, the act is frowned upon but not illegal.

“My hope is that one day sharks will be elevated to that same level of protection as marine mammals,” said Hovland.

Other than their size, whale sharks do not pose a threat to humans. They eat plankton and not meat. However, humans are a threat to them. The shark has a mucous layer on the skin for protection. When it is touched by human it this can really hurt the animal.

“Protecting them and not molesting them. Just appreciating them is what they need from us,” he said.

However, with Marsee’s unbelievable video, experience and a shark tale to tell Marsees said if given the opportunity, he may take another ride.

“Hey you know if I see those again, I may or may not jump in the water again. I don’t know,” said Marsee.

The Marine Mammal Protection Act is what protects mammals such as manatees and dolphins. However, sharks are categorized as fish (not mammals) they do not fall under the protection of the law.