Earlier this year, a Hawaiian family were free-diving off the coast of Kaunolu on the island of Lanai when they spotted a young whale shark cruising nearby. These endangered animals are rarely seen in Hawaii’s waters and the Kawelo family were delighted by the sighting. Their initial excitement quickly faded, however, when they realised that the animal was labouring under the weight of a thick rope wrapped around its neck.

Kapua Kawelo and her husband, Joby Rohrer both work on endangered species for the O‘ahu Army Natural Resources Program and, after some deliberation, decided to intervene. "We know that people don't necessarily encourage this type of thing, but both of us are biologists," Kawelo explained to CNN. "We felt like we were, sort of, in tune with what the animal was doing and maybe we were meant to be there."

Armed with a four-inch blade to cut the rope, Rohrer made repeated dives to depths of 50 to 60 feet for spans of up to two minutes at a time and eventually succeeded at freeing the entangled youngster.

"He made five free dives on the animal over the course of about 45 minutes," explained Jonathan Sprague, a wildlife control manager for Pulama Lana’i, who was with the family at the time.

The braided fishing rope, which was about five inches thick and weighed at least 150 pounds, was swum to shore by the family’s 15-year-old daughter.

Barnacles had already colonised the thick rope suggesting that it has been wrapped around the shark for at least a few months. In fact, the Hawaii Department of Land and Natural Resources had been alerted about the entangled youngster a few weeks before the rescue, and had issued a call for divers to report any sightings of the animal.

Aside from some damage to the whale shark’s pectoral fin and some scarring on its back, the animal appeared to be in pretty good condition, according to whale-shark expert Brad Norman. He estimated the shark to be at least 20 years old, and it’s odds for survival are very good.

Whale shark populations have decreased significantly in the last fifty years putting the animals at risk of extinction. “If we don’t reverse the declining trend in their numbers, it’s dire for the species as a whole,” Norman told National Geographic.

Luckily for this particular animal, the Kawelo family decided to take a calculated risk and it paid off.

2015 01 30 Whale Shark Related Content

Top header image: Simon J. Pierce