Video coming our way from the coastline of Bushehr in Iran is just the latest in a string of troubling shark-harassment stories this week. And it seems the pair of fishermen who "hopped aboard" the passing whale shark in the footage will not face any charges.  

نهنگ سواری امروز.روزهای اواخر صیادی

A post shared by Rahmat (@rahmat.hosseini.71) on Jul 5, 2017 at 7:54am PDT

Despite strong backlash from commenters, scientists and conservationists, local law enforcement will not be able to crack down on the perpetrators in this case. 

After viewing the footage, Mohammad Tollab, director of the Marine and Environmental Protection Agency in Bushehr, told News24 that the men would not be punished because the shark sustained no injuries. The agency has, however, committed to contacting them "with information" on best practices for interacting with marine life.

The decision has sparked anger online, with many citing the whale shark's endangered status in calling for harsher punishment. Whale sharks were classified as endangered by the IUCN in 2016, and were listed by the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species (CITES) long before that.

CITES does monitor the whale shark trade, but it's actually a common misconception that these organisations are able to set and enforce domestic wildlife harassment policies.

Monitoring whale sharks on a global scale is an extremely difficult task, and many experts believe that more needs to be done at the national level to protect the threatened animals. 

Sadly, incidents like this one are all too common. Back in 2015, an unidentified boater decided to "wakeboard" on the world's biggest fish. That same year, another whale shark rider grabbed headlines in Florida

At the time, Dr Alistair DoveDirector of Research and Conservation at Georgia Aquarium, noted that there was more to consider than just the legal implications in such harassment incidents.

"Perhaps what we should be asking ourselves is whether this is an appropriate way to behave with one of the world's most incredible animals," he said. "Shouldn't we show a little more respect for the magnificence of nature? The animal shown in this video will probably suffer no lasting effects, but that doesn't make it OK."

Rahmat Hosseini, who uploaded the latest clip to Instagram, has said his intention wasn't to hurt the animal. 

"We love [whale sharks]," he wrote in a statement. "And we never want to hurt them. We are fishermen, and whenever a whale or a dolphin is stuck in our nets, we tear our nets, even if they cost [money to replace]."

In Hosseini's defence, some commenters pointed out that the shark seemed to tolerate its human hitchhikers. That apparent "tolerance" probably had a lot to do with food: the whale shark in the video appears to be filter-feeding at the surface, and its unwanted cargo probably wasn't bothersome enough to warrant forsaking a meal. 

This particular incident may have ended without injury, but such behaviour can be hazardous for both the fish and the humans involved. Touching whale sharks can disturb the protective mucous layer on their skin – and it can also have unpleasant consequences for you or me. The tiny, tooth-like scales (known as dermal denticles) that cover the skin of most shark species can cause a painful graze known as "shark burn". (What does whale shark burn look like? We saw the evidence firsthand when a group of beachgoers attempted to rescue a juvenile that stranded in South Africa.)

And if that isn't enough to put you off a shark-riding attempt, there's also the risk of being clipped by a fin, or trapped beneath a 40,000-pound giant fish. As we've discussed before, whale sharks are known to barrel-roll their way to safety when threatened.  

In an online forum on SCUBA safety, boat captain Frank Wasson describes witnessing an incident where a diver was stunned unconscious after attempting to ride a whale shark's dorsal fin. 

"When the whale shark got tired of him, he flicked his tail twice," he writes. "The first flick dislodged the rider, the second whacked the diver so hard it stunned him, knocking mask, reg and camera off. I rescued the diver ... and brought him to the surface. Whale shark riding can be dangerous."

In this case, at least, Hosseini and his shark-mounting compeer were not at risk of being eaten. Whale sharks feed on krill and tiny fishes, and have a throat size to match: about as wide as a grapefruit. 

Experts recommend giving these gentle giants a berth of five metres at all times – and given that their numbers have more than halved over the last 75 years, it might be a good time to start treating them with respect. 



Top header image: Klaus Stiefel/Flickr