Jaws my friend! The touching relationship between a fisherman and a very sociable whale SHARK

By Leon Watson

In harmony: A whale shark approaches a local fisherman to be hand-fed brine shrimp in shallow waters

Like giant goldfish, these massive whale sharks don't mind being fed hand to mouth by their fishermen friends.

Photographed near Oslob in the Philippines, the groundbreaking images show close relationship previously not thought possible.

Captured by conservationist Shawn Heinrichs, the once-in-a-lifetime behaviour of the half dozen whale sharks up to 25ft long and the 12 or so fishermen draws gasps of disbelief from casual observers.

The food-based friendship centres around the brine shrimp the fishermen are catching and the trust between man and the world's largest fish is evident to see.

'In these images, we are witnessing a rare and exciting connection between fishermen and the greatest fish in the sea, the whale shark,' said 40-year- old Mr Heinrichs.

'Typically shy of one another, they have formed an unusual bond of appreciation, respect and trust. These ground-breaking images capture that story.'

Stumbling across the unique sight after visiting a remote dive site near to Oslob, Mr Heinrichs was informed of the relationship by a local park ranger.

'An excited local park ranger informed us that the fishermen across the way had whale sharks they had befriended,' Mr Heinrichs said.

'This sounded like long shot, but worth a look. We jumped in our boat and headed across the channel to investigate.

In harmony: A whale shark approaches a local fisherman to be hand-fed brine shrimp in shallow waters

'Upon arriving, we were delighted to see fishermen in dugout canoes paddling around with whale sharks following behind.'

Having never heard of this type of human and shark interaction, Mr Heinrichs tacitly gives it his approval because the fishermen are feeding the sharks their natural prey.

'I had never seen whale sharks in such shallow water on their own intention,' Mr Heinrichs said.

'The migratory behaviour of the whale sharks is likely not being impacted because they are here to feed on the naturally occurring shrimp.

'If or when the shrimp move out, their will be no shrimp for the fishermen to catch, and with both primary natural feeding and secondary hand feeding finished, they will seek other food sources.'

However, environmentally concerns aside, Mr Heinrichs was still left stunned by the behaviour he witnessed.

Friendly: Three hungry whale sharks wait to be fed brine shrimp from local fishermen

'This is the first time I have ever witnessed this sort of behaviour or relationship between fishermen and the whale sharks,' he said.

'Only in one other place in the world, Papau (where some local whale sharks feed off anchovies in the nets of fishermen) has anything like this been witnessed.

'In Oslob however, it appears that the fishermen themselves have fostered a personal relationship with the sharks from onset, and have strong appreciation and affection for the animals.'

While the local fisherman see the whale sharks as good luck charms for their catch, they are also charging £1.50 to let photographers like Mr Heinrichs capture the friendship to supplement their incomes.

'Probably the greatest challenge in capturing these images was the fact that this encounter was completely unexpected,' Mr Heinrichs said.

'Exposing the image properly, and especially the split shots, proved to be extremely challenging.

Beast friends: The hand-to-mouth relationship has fostered an unusual friendship in the tropical waters

'Technical limitations such as limited depth of field, low available light and limited focus, combined with moving sharks and mildly choppy seas, made each shot a challenge.

'Fortunately, the fishermen were just as excited as I was about the process of capturing the images, and they patiently worked with me to get the job done properly.'

Ultimately though, for Shawn it was an awe-inspiring experience.

'It was a lifetime moment, just me, the fishermen, and these gentle whale sharks. What was most touching was the relationship between the fishermen and the sharks.

'The fishermen clearly cared for these animals, and the whale sharks demonstrated such trust in them.

'Having witnessed the slaughter of whale sharks at the hands of fishermen elsewhere in the region, this interaction was a beacon of hope for me, a message that both man and whale shark could co-exist, could develop trust, and even appreciate one another.'



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