Ryan Winters told FOX13 Tampa he was spearfishing with a friend 30 miles out when they spotted the whale shark. The friends jumped in the water, which was about 80 feet deep, to record the “gentle giant.” Winters said they spent about an hour swimming with it.
The shark was estimated to be 20 feet long and appeared friendly.
"We swam alongside him and he let us hitch a ride for a little bit. The encounter lasted about an hour. It was truly amazing and a once in a lifetime experience," he told Fox News. "We swam over to him and watched as he fed on plankton. It was really cool to see the entire ecosystem he supported underneath him."
Winters wrote on Facebook that he hoped that there would also be cobia – a scavenger fish that follows larger animals – but there weren’t any.
"As he fed on plankton you can see the smaller fish feeding on the ones he missed. Below the whale shark you can see the larger fish that are feeding on the smaller fish," he described. "It was a really great view of how a whale shark can hold an entire ecosystem right underneath him."
The endangered whale shark is the largest type of shark – and largest of all fishes – and can be found in tropical waters, according to the World Wildlife Fund. They can weigh as much as 11 tons and stretch as long as 40 feet long.
The filter feeders typically eat plankton and are described as “gentle giants” that “sometimes allow swimmers to hitch a ride,” according to National Geographic.
Editor’s note: A previous version of this article misidentified the spearfisherman. The article has since been updated.