Whale sharks open their huge mouths to feed on plankton, though this one appears to be interested in eating a diver. Photo by Simon Pierce from Caters News Agency used by permission

Simon Pierce was diving off Isla Murjeres in Mexico when he happened to find himself in the right place at the right time to capture an image of a whale shark about to consume another diver, swimming near the surface with a snorkel. Or at least that's what appears to be unfolding in the photo above.

Pierce is a marine biologist from New Zealand who does research and conservation work on threatened marine species with his main focus being the whale shark, the biggest fish on Earth. Whale sharks are harmless to humans.

The largest known aggregation of whale sharks in the world are these waters off Cancun, and on this day there were 100 whale sharks swimming in the area.

"I was trying to capture the shark’s wide-open mouth, which was rather successful in this case," Pierce told GrindTV in an email. "Having the swimmer there gives some great perspective of the sheer size, too: This shark was about 26 feet in length. I had a ‘fisheye’ lens on for this shot, which gives an extreme wide-angle view, so the shark was probably only about a foot away from me as it passed."

With the number of whale sharks in the area, it wasn't a shock to see a giant mouth appear, Pierce added. Whale sharks feed on plankton filtered through large mouths that feature 300 to 350 tiny teeth and 10 filter pads, and stretch 5 feet wide.

"As long as it's not filled with sharp teeth, I'm pretty relaxed about it," he said of capturing the photo. "It may look like a dangerous situation, but it's actually just pure fun. You can see in the last shot, [the diver] already turned around to seek out the next customer." That photo is below.


A diver calmly turns his attention away from the passing whale shark; photo by Simon Pierce via Caters News Agency used by permission

Pierce sent GrindTV a series of photos that captured the moment, to dispel any claims that it might have been Photoshopped. "I don't even know how to use it," he said.

The photos (there are more below) were taken last summer but released publicly for the first time Wednesday via Caters News Agency. Pierce said he was leading a whale shark research expedition for his organization, the Marine Megafauna Foundation, and a group of marine tourists from Aqua-Firma U.K.

"My scientific work involves photo-identifying each individual shark from their unique spots, so my camera is a vital research tool, but there are so many sharks present that I allow myself a few more attractive images as well," he said.

Sheer size makes whale sharks photogenic. They can reach up to 65 feet in length, weigh 66,000 pounds, likely live for more than 100 years, dive well over a mile deep, and can be fun for divers, though some discourage the practice of swimming near them.

"Because they feed on plankton, and are often quite curious about human swimmers, they’re a very popular subject amongst dive tourists, who can swim freely with them," Pierce said. "In this shot, one of the guests on the boat was thoroughly enjoying this close encounter, but I imagine this sight was the last those plankton ever saw. The shark was completely unfazed by my presence, so I was able to capture this photo sequence as the shark continued to feed on the way past."

He also captured these mesmerizing photos for your enjoyment:


Whale sharks are the largest creatures on Earth yet very docile and curious about divers; photo by Simon Pierce via Caters News Agency used by permission



Whale sharks are filter feeders, using their huge mouth to suck in plankton; photo by Simon Pierce via Caters News Agency used by permission



The sheer size of whale sharks makes them photogenic; photo by Simon Pierce via Caters News Agency used by permission

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