Mike Angers had promised his kids a day off from school if their grades were good, and the family was about 14 miles out northwest from Big Pass in Sarasota this month, headed to a favorite fishing hole 20 miles out for amberjack, when his daughter Lexi, 13, saw something.
"What's that in the water?" she asked, and Angers, scanning the calm Gulf of Mexico for perhaps a turtle, suddenly saw a large fin.
"It looked like the movie Jaws," he remembers as he pulled closer. "It was the most amazing thing. You see the fin, then a big shadow in the water. We got up on it, and it's a whale shark. … I was born and raised in Sarasota, been a boater my whole life. I'd never seen one. It was a dream come true for us."
Whale sharks — huge, filter-feeding fish that eat mostly plankton and pose no threat to people — remain one of the rarer finds a boater can stumble upon in the gulf, but the area around Tampa Bay has produced a cluster of sightings in recent weeks.
A research group based in Mississippi that charts between 50 and 70 whale shark sightings in the Gulf of Mexico each summer has gotten four this season, and three have come from around Tampa Bay, not including Angers' discovery. One was 20 miles west of Clearwater Beach, another 20 miles off Anna Maria Island.
Angers had cellphones at the ready, his family able to take videos and still photos of the shark, which he estimated at 25 feet, almost as long as his 30-foot boat. His son, Ethan, caught a 42-inch cobia that had been swimming near the whale shark with several remoras and other small fish.
"It was huge, a good size cobia, and it looked like a minnow next to the shark," Angers said. "We're just watching it toodling around real slow, opening its mouth and taking in all the water. … They'd go down maybe 10-15 feet, then come back up and hang on the surface, very peaceful."
Whale sharks — the biggest fish in the world, reaching about 40 feet and 11 tons as adults — have other clusters in the gulf, from near the delta of the Mississippi River to the Yucatan Peninsula in Mexico, where there's a cottage industry in taking tourists out to dive with them.
"These animals in this area are rare," said Robert Hueter, the associate vice president for research at Mote Marine Laboratory in Sarasota. "In other parts of the gulf, they're found in very predictable, large numbers."
Hueter said local whale shark sightings are usually 10 to 20 miles offshore, and scientists that find the animals can track them with satellite tags, revealing huge migration patterns that can extend past the equator and halfway out into the South Atlantic.
"The interesting thing is the relative rarity that we have them right here, just not as abundant as even places like Louisiana, where they can be seen in large groups," Hueter said. "It's one of the reasons why these sightings are special."
If you're fortunate enough to encounter a whale shark, the scientific community wants very much to hear about it — sightings are catalogued and charted by several organizations. Whaleshark.org has a database of 7,430 identified whale sharks from 34,000-plus sightings, with a "Wildbook" system that uses the unique dot patterns behind the gills, much like a fingerprint, to identify specific animals, and in turn, their migrations from one sighting to the next.
"I like to tell people it's a life-changing experience, whether you get into the water with them or just see them," said Eric Hoffmayer, a research biologist who works with the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration. "Most people get very excited about their observations."