Multiple whale sharks spotted off Anna Maria Island. Mote scientist calls it 'exciting'

Jacob Campoamor was fishing for grouper with his family about 40 miles off the coast of Anna Maria Island on Saturday when he saw something in the water he's never seen before.

His family has owned a home on Anna Maria Island for 50 years, and they frequently go fishing near the island. On Saturday, Campoamor said he noticed a commotion in the water and fins popping up above the surface.

Curiosity led him, his father, grandfather and two uncles to navigate closer to investigate.

What they found was five whale sharks, which swam up close to the boat, prompting Campoamor to pull out his phone and take a video and photos. He said the whale sharks were within sight for about 20 minutes before they disappeared.

"We see a lot of cool stuff, but this is the first time seeing whale sharks," Campoamor said.

He said the encounter was pretty relaxed, since he knew whale sharks are filter-feeders, but the family remained cautious.

"We were just taking it all in," Campoamor said.

Mote Marine Laboratory received a report of the spotting of five whale sharks. Now, Mote scientists are asking members of the public to report new sightings of the Earth's largest fish species to them as soon as possible. They would like to tag, track and collect data on whale sharks and their location.

"It’s exciting that we are hearing reports of five whale sharks in one area, because it suggests they might be feeding on something in a special spot," Dr. Bob Hueter, Senior Scientist and Director of the Center for Shark Research at Mote, said in a news release.

While whale sharks have been spotted in the Gulf of Mexico before, their visits to southwest Florida waters are sporadic, according to Mote.

"We have placed satellite-linked tracking tags on numerous whale sharks at a major feeding aggregation off Mexico’s Yucatan Peninsula in the past decade, but it’s rarer that we can find and tag these huge fish off Florida’s Gulf Coast," Hueter said.

Whale sharks have polka dot coloration and can be up to 45 feet in length.

Mote asks that whale shark sightings in the Gulf be reported to Hueter at 941-302-0976. The report should be made within 24 hours of the sighting and include the number of whale sharks spotted, the date, time, location and GPS coordinates, if possible.