Excited angler jumps overboard to swim with (and touch) 40-foot whale shark; video

Josh Schleupner about to make physical contact with 40-foot whale shark.

Video showing a Maryland fishermen swimming with and touching a whale shark, after jumping overboard to document his encounter, is drawing mixed reviews on social media.

Josh Schleupner was enjoying a fishing outing with family on July 4 off Ocean City when they spotted an estimated 40-foot whale shark feeding on he surface.

Knowing that whale sharks eat plankton and are not aggressive toward humans, and that the gentle giants are rarely encountered off Maryland, Schleupner and his oldest son jumped in.

The video opens with footage showing the spotted whale shark, then jumps to Schleupner treading water above the whale shark, and diving to make contact.

"Oh, he's on it," a man is heard shouting from the boat, as Schleupner appears to have achieved his objective.

This is followed by lots of splashing, before Schleupner surfaces with camera in hand, looking victorious.

The Dispatch on Thursday quoted Schleupner as saying, "Even when I touched it, it didn't flinch or anything because it was so big. I ran my hand down its back. When I was swimming back to the boat, I looked down for another glimpse but never saw it again."

He added that the "amazing" encounter made up for the fact that his group hadn't had any luck trolling for tuna.

The Dispatch, which covers the Maryland coast, shared its story on Facebook, inspiring a range of comments.

Some readers seemed angry that Schleupner felt compelled to bother a whale shark that was minding its own business.

"Too bad he didn't get eaten," wrote Jeff McDonald, who later implied that he was only joking, after he was criticized by others on the thread.

Another who opposed Schleupner's whale shark plunge was Jenn Schmidt, who wrote, "The whale shark was probably all 'Oh look, another human who wants to ride me… sigh.' "

Riding on the backs of whale sharks, once common at tourist destinations where the animals are frequently encountered, is now frowned upon and perceived as harassment by most dive operators.

Many were envious of Schleupner, though.

Wrote Tedi Bennethum: "What an amazing experience!! Such a beautiful creature! Polka dots and all."

Whale sharks are the largest fish on the planet, reaching lengths of 40-plus feet, or about the size of a large school bus.

They're found in tropical and temperate waters around the world, but are declining in number – they're still hunted in some areas – and listed as vulnerable by the International Union for the Conservation of Nature.

Schleupner told The Dispatch that the whale shark his group encountered measured close to 40 feet.

"I never had any fear or anything like that," he said. "They are just gentle, docile giants. It was pretty surreal. It didn't really sink in until I was back in the boat and we started trolling again. We were talking about it and we all agreed we don't think anybody has had the opportunity to swim with and touch a whale shark in Ocean City."

About a week earlier, Ocean City fisherman Steve Moore encountered a whale shark – perhaps the same animal – during an overnight expedition. He estimated its length at 40 feet.

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