Panic quickly spread through a crowd of Israeli beachgoers recently when they spotted a large dorsal fin slicing through the surface of the water just metres from a group of swimmers. In a frenzy, many who were in the water at the time scrambled to get out, while those on shore took to their phones to record the incident. Amidst the screams and cries, a large shadow came into view just beneath the fin and many on the scene likely imagined it to be the shark from Jaws charging in to snack on some humans.

"He's going for that woman!" a person can be heard shouting in the video, according to The Times of Israel. "She doesn't notice it! My God."

When someone mentions sharks it usually conjures up negative images of these predators portrayed as 'monsters' or 'mindless killers' out to get us. However, the shark captured in this video poses no harm to the swimmers even though it belongs to the largest shark species to currently roam our oceans.

Meet the whale shark (Rhincodon typus), which can reach lengths of 30 feet or more and weigh over 20 tons. They stand out among other sharks due to the white constellation-like patterns that spread out across their blue bodies and the fact that they are one of only three filter-feeding sharks. Swimming with their mouths wide open close to the water’s surface, they gulp down plankton as well as any tiny fish and plant material that happen to be around. That means humans are off the menu!

Found worldwide in all tropical waters, this particular whale shark was spotted off the coast of the southern Israeli city of Eilat. It turns out the animals regularly appear off this coast in summer because of the warm waters; marine scientists spotted four whale sharks in the area last summer in six weeks, but saw none in 2018.

"The [feeding] season is at its height and they're getting close to concentrations of plankton," Adi Barash, head of the Sharks in Israel conservation organisation, told The Times. "It's very important to not get in its way, to not touch and not chase the shark. It's fine to photograph and enjoy it."

In fact, your pictures may be of help: those white spots on their skin are as unique to whale sharks as fingerprints are to humans. Marine biologists and community scientists have been photographing whale sharks around the world and, using a modified version of a NASA algorithm developed to recognise star patterns, are beginning to individually ID these big animals.

Divers in Indonesia’s Cenderawasih Bay are almost guaranteed a sighting of whale sharks. Well-known to the locals, these gentle giants gather in huge numbers around fishing platforms waiting for an easy meal. We’re treated to an amazing and close-up encounter with these ocean behemoths as they gulp down mouthfuls of small fish.

But why the focus on whale sharks? Well, they’re currently listed on the IUCN Red List of Threatened Species as Endangered due to multiple threats including marine pollution, boat strikes, and accidental entanglement in fishing nets. As is true for many shark species, our understanding of their movements, behaviour, connectivity and distribution has improved, but their basic life history remains largely unknown. This is the case even for the popular whale shark.

However, little by little, shark scientists are uncovering their mysteries. For example, new research has shed light on their longevity by using bomb radiocarbon assays to provide the first validated age estimates for whale sharks. And a new study that came out earlier this month showed that their eyes are covered with dermal denticles (that’s right, teeth!). This is a novel mechanism of eye protection in vertebrates.

"These are very gentle sharks and they should be given a wide berth and not harassed, touched, or disturbed while they search for food," Yoram Hemo of the Israel Nature and Parks Authority told a local news outlet. Here’s hoping that the next time beachgoers spot this spotty shark they do just that!