Omri Yossef Omessi, a ranger in the marine unit of the Israel Nature and Parks Authority, came across a delightful surprise as he was snorkeling last week in the Gulf of Eilat to find abandoned and illegal fishing traps.

“We were lucky enough to see a whale shark and that was very cool,” Omessi tells ISRAEL21c.

Whale sharks, an endangered species, are considered the largest known fish. Omessi explains that they are easy to identify because of their uniquely shaped flat head and their white spots.

“I’m always happy to see sharks; they have a bad reputation for the wrong reasons. It is safe to swim next to sharks,” Omessi says.

This was the fourth whale shark sighted off the coast of Israel’s southern resort city this summer, according to INPA and a conservationist group called Sharks in Israel. This time of year, Omessi explains, the waters are full of plankton, the whale sharks’ main source of food.

Sharks in Israel chairwoman Adi Barash, a doctoral candidate in marine science at the University of Haifa, is documenting the whale sharks in the Gulf of Eilat (also known as the Gulf of Aqaba) at the northern tip of the Red Sea, whose coastline touches Egypt, Israel, Jordan and Saudi Arabia..

“We’ve found at least four different individuals and they’ve also been seen in Egypt, Jordan and Saudi Arabia,” says Omessi. “Their spots are like a fingerprint so if you take photos of the sharks and compare them, you can see if it’s a different individual.”

A whale shark in the Gulf of Eilat, July 30, 2019. Israel Nature and Parks Authority

Many Eilat residents come to volunteer with Omessi in his work monitoring fishing activity in the Gulf of Eilat. In the course of this difficult but fascinating work, “We see amazing stuff,” he says.

Last year, for the first time, they saw a blue whale, the biggest whale in the ocean. They also have sighted rare turtles, other types of sharks and rays, and much smaller but beautiful and unusual creatures.

Sharks in Israel says that there are some 500 species of sharks in the world and about 35 of them live in the Mediterranean Sea.

Much farther north, in the warm waters next to the Hadera power plant, marine biologists from the University of Haifa have been tagging and studying a group of 30 female dusky sharks and nine male sandbar sharks who seem to have returned over the past four winter seasons.