Reports of a diver’s near-death experience by way of a giant whale shark off the coast of Cancun, Mexico have been greatly exaggerated.
Although a photo published this week in the U.K’s Daily Mail appears to show the diver about to be swallowed, the filter-feeding sharks eat plankton – not humans.
The dramatic photo of the whale shark, which is part of the largest living species of fish and can get up to 40 feet in length, was taken by underwater photographer and expedition leader Mauricio Handler from the United States.
The photo shows a diver that appears to be swimming just several feet away from the shark whose mouth, which can be up to five feet across, is wide open. The Daily Mail’s headline that accompanied the photo and story, which has launched an Internet frenzy, reads, “Open wide: The diver who nearly got swallowed by a whale shark.”
Handler told the Daily Mail that the photo was taken of another photographer during an expedition he led off the waters of Isla Mujeres, which is an island near the popular resort town of Cancun.
More than likely, the whale shark was part of an annual migration to the coastal waters in the Gulf of Mexico. It is reported that whale sharks swim into the warm waters of this area from May to September. The schools can number in the hundreds.
"They don't have very good eyesight but the diver managed to get out of the way,” Handler told the Daily Mail. “If he had have been sucked into the massive mouth the shark would have just spat him out."
Typically, the shark is found in tropical and warm oceans, and lives in the open sea with a lifespan of about 70 years, according to marine biologists. The species originated about 60 million years ago. Although whale sharks feed mainly on plankton, they also eat microscopic plants and animals.