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Whale sharks are known the world over as one of the most docile species of shark in existence. One of only two other shark species that filter feed on plankton, krill, and other tiny marine life, whale sharks are harmless to humans and can grow upwards of 40 feet in length.
Their propensity to swim slowly along the surface of the ocean occasionally tempts fishermen and passersby to jump on the backs of these giant creatures and ride them, an act that critics say is not only unsafe it’s disruptive to their normal behavior.
Earlier this month, a video was posted to Instagram of an Iranian fisherman attempting to “surf” on the back of a whale shark off the coast of Bushire, Iran, that quickly went viral. Along with over 21 thousand views, a deluge of negative comments likened the stunt to animal abuse.
The International Union for the Conservation of Nature lists whale sharks as an endangered species. And while it may not be illegal to jump on their backs in Iran, other countries have been more proactive about restricting human interaction with the animals. In the Phillippines, for example, tourists who swim with the sharks are required by law to maintain a distance of four feet or else face a fine and possible jail time.
“It’s just foolish to climb on the back of a 40-foot animal in the water,” John Carlson, a shark expert from NOAA, told Newsweek. “They are very large, they turn very quickly, you can get stuck underneath it, you can be hit by a fin.”
While the long-term effects on the population are unknown, jumping on the back of a whale shark likely stresses the animal and disrupts its normal feeding behavior, said Carlson.