Rescued whale shark towed out to sea

2009-12-04 00:00

FOLLOWING a rescue mission that lasted five hours, a young whale shark was finally directed out of the Durban harbour, after it was found beached on a sand bank close to a ship channel.

Emergency services, marine biologists from Sea World, National Sea Rescue Institute (NSRI) and Ezemvelo Wildlife were on standby after the whale shark was spotted on the sandbank yesterday.

It is believed that the shark swam into the harbour on Wednesday night and then beached on the sandbank. Its dorsal fin and back had deep abrasions. It is believed that the shark could have been injured by a ship while it swam into the harbour.

Even big cargo ships stayed away yesterday afternoon when the young animal, which, despite its youth, is five metres long and weighs an enormous 1,5 tons, was guided with a rope tied around its body slowly out of the harbour mouth to freedom. Although whale sharks, which eat plankton, are not an uncommon sight along the South African east coast, it is almost unheard of to have one turn up in the harbour.

They are usually spotted at back line in the open sea, said Enzemvelo spokesman Jeff Gaisford.

News of the shark spread quickly. A large crowd gathered to watch the rescue operation by concerned marine biologists.

The shark was spotted for the first time at around 9.30 am at the harbour mouth, when someone mistook its cumbersome shape for a capsized boat. The NSRI was then summoned, said Brian St Clair-Laing, senior boatman at the NSRI.

Ahmed Mia, who owns ABM Charters, was the first person to spot the shark on the sandbank.

“I was taking a charter cruise out to sea when I saw something splashing in the water; I went clo­ser and saw the shark. It was stuck on the bank,” he said.

Mia reported the shark to the harbour authorities and then kept a close eye on it.

“It was the first time I have seen a whale shark in the harbour. We see them out at sea. It was … amazing,” he added.

Because the creature didn’t appear in trouble, the NSRI let the shark be. However, half -an-hour later, Gary Stewart, a steersman of the luxury yacht, Spirit of Elan, saw the shark at low tide when it was stranded on a sandbank close to the Esplanade channel. The NSRI, navy divers, police divers, staffers at uShaka Marine World, the Animal Protection Society and an official from Enzemvelo then rushed to the whale shark’s rescue.

According to St Clair-Laing, they were able get the shark into deeper water and it appeared fine until it landed on the sandbank once more.

When the tide came in at around 1 pm, the whale shark managed to swim off the sandbank.

However, the shark appeared disorientated and was swimming around in circles. Various strategies were used to lead it out of the harbour. First, the rescuers tried to place a net underneath it so that it could be tied, like on a stretcher, between two inflated boats.

Thereafter, they attempted to tie a rope around the whale shark’s body, but succeeded only when they managed to keep the lumbering giant still with a boathook.

The NSRI vessel then slowly eased the shark out of the harbour with a towrope and released it about a kilometre from the clo­sest ship channel.

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