A free-diving Hawaiian family recently came to the rescue of an endangered whale shark entangled in 150-pounds of fishing rope.
Kapua Kawelo and her husband Joby Rohrer, who work with endangered species for the Oahu Army Natural Resources Program, were free-diving with their two teenage children when they made the discovery. Initially amazed at such a unique sighting, even for marine life aficionados like them - the whale shark is the world's largest fish after all - they were horrified when they realized that the animal had a heavy rope wrapped around its neck.
Rohrer explains that the rope had dug deep scars into the animal's flesh and it appeared to be uncomfortably sore, so the family decided to use a dive knife to cut it. Armed with only his experience as a free-diver and a small, serrated dive blade, Rohrer dove down again and again at depths of 50 to 60 feet for spans of up to two minutes at a time. Although the others also wanted to help, Rohrer was the only one who could hold his breath that long. Surprisingly enough, the goliath appeared to cooperate fully with his rescuer, not swimming away throughout the 45-minute process.
Then, the family’s 15-year-old daughter, Ho’ohila, swam the 150-pounds worth of rope to shore to prevent any other marine creature to suffer the same ordeal as the whale shark.
National Geographic explorer and one of the world’s foremost experts on whale sharks, Brad Norman, explains that it was obvious from the barnacles that had colonized it that the rope had been strangling the gentle giant for at least a few months. Hawaii’s Department of Land and Natural Resources had actually been alerted to the shark’s plight in mid-July by scuba divers and had since asked people to report any sightings.
Norman estimated that the animal was at least 20 years old and said that it was most likely to survive. He added that measures must be taken to protect the whale shark species, which is sadly threatened with extinction. According to the Natural Resources Defense Council, a single discarded fishing net can keep killing marine life for centuries and around 700,000 tons of fishing gear are abandoned in the oceans every year.
Kapua considers the family's unique adventure to be no coincidence. She explains that in Hawaiian mythology, ancestors sometimes come back as guardian animals, called aumakua. These guardians are thought to protect families, who also must help protect them.
“And we’ve never seen a whale shark before but, just like native peoples around the world, you feel like you have a special connection to the resources that surround you and your family,” says Kapua. “I like to think that we were there for a reason and that the least we could do for having that amazing experience, seeing that beautiful creature, was to help it survive.”
As Jacques Yves Cousteau once said, "The sea, once it casts its spell, holds one in the wonders of its net forever!"