Iranian Fisherman Filmed Surfing Endangered Whale Shark, Sparking Outrage

Whale sharks are the biggest fish in the sea and often slowly swim at the oceans' surface. They also are rather docile, and because they feed on plankton, they are generally not harmful to humans. Unfortunately, this tempts some people to ride atop them.

An Iranian fisherman was filmed doing just that in early July, and a photo of the man's shark-surfing escapade was posted on the Instagram account of a man named Rahmat Hosseini. The post says it was taken off the coast of Bushire, Iran.

While it's not illegal in most places to "surf" on a whale shark, it's not a good idea, in part because it counts as harassment toward the gentle beasts, and also because it could be dangerous for the person involved. "It isn't illegal, but it's inherently dangerous," John Carlson, a shark expert with the National Oceanic Administration, told Newsweek for a 2015 story about Floridians likewise riding whale sharks. "It's just foolish to climb on the back of a 40-foot animal in the water. They are very large, they turn very quickly, you can get stuck underneath it, you can be hit by a fin."

The post elicited a barrage of negative comments, with people likening it to animal abuse.

Whale sharks (Rhincodon typus) are listed as an endangered species by the International Union for Conservation of Nature, an environmental group. They were considered "vulnerable" until 2016, when their status was revised to endangered. "Whale shark products remain valuable, and the species is still commonly caught in some countries," the group notes. "Serious injury and inferred mortality through vessel strike is a threat to several globally significant aggregations, as is bycatch in net fisheries, and the risk of ship strike. In the absence of conservation action, declines are likely to continue into the future."

Their population has dropped by half in the last 75 years, and today it is thought to number in the tens of thousands. The animals can be found throughout warm waters of the Indo-Pacific and the Atlantic, with about three-fourths found in the former region.

Carlson noted that "we don't know the long-term effects" of jumping on sharks, Carlson says, though it probably stresses them. "They might be feeding or migrating. Climbing on its back is interrupting its normal behavior."