There’s nothing like an animal rescue story to put you in a good mood for the weekend.

A juvenile whale shark that washed up on the rocks off South Africa’s east coast last weekend was given a second chance at life after a group of holidaymakers teamed up to help the massive fish back into deeper waters. 

Jon Goetsch first spotted the whale shark from the balcony of his holiday home at Cannon Rocks about an hour before it washed up. Suspecting that the fish was in trouble, Goetsch rushed to the beach and, with the help of his 12-year-old son, immediately began battling against the breakers to wrestle the fish to safety.

“It took us around an hour to get [the whale shark] off the rocks as it kept washing up again,” Goetsch explains. “And about 45 minutes to get it to leave the bay; it just kept swimming back.”

Whale sharks are the biggest fish in the ocean, and although this was a juvenile, helping the four-metre shark to safety was no small feat. It took the efforts of Goetsch, his family and a handful of bystanders, including teen Calista de Wilzen who rushed over to lend a hand to get the whale shark off the rocks.

Image © Veronica Veltman

“When we were completely exhausted, it was this petit girl, probably no older than 15 years, who, fully clothed, fought against the waves to get the shark behind the breakers,” Goetsch told Netwerk24.

“The shark hit the girl with its tail and pushed her around but she never gave up. Even though we were the first to help the shark, she is the heroine of the day and nobody even knows who she is,” he added [translated].

Not only were the holidaymakers-turned-rescuers exhausted after hours of fighting the surf, but they also suffered "shark burn" – grazes caused by the tiny, tooth-like scales (known as dermal denticles) that cover the skin of most shark species. In the case of the whale shark, this barrier is also an impressive four inches (10cm) thick, which makes it some of the most impenetrable skin in the animal kingdom!

Shark burn! Image © Jon Goetsch

But according to Goetsch, the injuries were worth it. “We're all divers, and have always wanted to swim with a whale shark. Now we've swam, saved and been burned by one! We thought at one point she woulnd't make it out, but when she finally did, we were so proud and happy."

Veronica Veltman, a volunteer for the South Africa Marine Rehabilitation Education Centre (SAMREC) suspects that bad weather and a drop in water temperature may have had something to do with the whale shark wash-up. Gale-force winds had been recorded in the area a day or two before the incident, possibly bringing a cold current with them.

According to Veltman, it’s possible that the whale shark become lethargic in the cooler water and drifted into the bay. Officials from SAMREC monitored the beach on Sunday afternoon to make sure that the youngster did not wash up again. 

Whale shark strandings have been recorded in various locations around the world, including on the Ecuador and Australian coastlines. Most of these incidents involve juvenile animals and it’s thought that they are particularly susceptible to sudden changes in water temperature and strong wave action.

"They can't handle waters lower than about 22 degrees Celsius (71.6 F) at the surface," explains marine biologist Dr. Simon Pierce, who has done extensive research on whale sharks in the area. "Fingers crossed that this one managed to warm up."

As of the time of posting, there have been no reports of a second stranding, so for now it looks like the young fish made it back out to sea.

Image © Jon Goetsch
Image © Jon Goetsch
Image © Jon Goetsch
Image © Jon Goetsch


Header image: Klaus Steifel