A close encounter with a giant of the deep was experienced by divers who came face-to-face with a five-metre whale shark near Abu Dhabi.
American defence contractor Darrell Seale was about to return home when his friends spotted a large shadow underneath the dive boat.
Whale sharks can grow to 10 metres, are slow moving filter-feeders and are becoming more commonly seen in UAE waters.
Despite that, they are considered endangered by the International Union for Conservation of Nature due to overfishing and habitat disruption.
Although harmless to humans and preferring to feed on plankton, the sighting was a big surprise for the team of divers.
“I was waiting to get on to the boat when I could see this huge shark swimming directly below me,” said Mr Seale, 51.
Although exact numbers are unknown marine experts estimate about 7,000 of the species remain, according to a database of sightings.
“Whale sharks are always a big draw,” said Mr Seale. “It was our second dive of the day and around noon.
“Two other divers were already back on the boat so I was the only one left in the water.
“The visibility was pretty good but seeing the whale shark so close was a complete surprise.
“I have seen them a number of times elsewhere in the world so I recognised it immediately.”
Mr Seale recorded a video of his interaction that lasted about 20 minutes. He estimated the sea creature to be about the same size as their dive boat.
“A whale shark is one of the biggest things you will see in the water,” said Mr Seale, who dives about twice a month in either Abu Dhabi or off the coast of Fujairah.
“Seeing something that massive but so gentle was a real thrill.
“It seemed to enjoy being around us and interacting.
“It would come up to the surface and then dive back down again, then swim away from the boat and turn around.
“All we will remember about the dive was seeing the shark, it was an absolutely amazing experience.”
It is not the first whale shark sighting off the UAE coast this year.
In March, divers in Fujairah filmed a similar five-metre whale shark as it circled their boat.
Other juveniles have been seen entering marinas in Dubai.
The familiar spotted colouring on their back makes them easier to distinguish between other sharks commonly found in the Arabian Gulf and Sea of Oman.
Regular divers said marine life has become more plentiful since restrictions on boats and tourist activities were enforced to limit the spread of Covid-19.
A glut of rays, larger fish, turtles, reef sharks and pods of dolphins have been reported along the coastline in recent weeks.
Ahmed Basiso, a Palestinian diving instructor and owner of the Ocean Dive Centre in Abu Dhabi, said sharks are becoming more common.
“We don’t see whale sharks very often in Abu Dhabi so this sighting was particularly unusual,” he said.
“This kind of interaction, with the shark coming so close again and again, is very rare.
“There have been very few boats out in recent months and certain fishing nets and cages have been restricted, so that has helped marine life flourish.”
Mr Basiso said sightings of bull sharks near Abu Dhabi have also become more frequent.
One dive spot thought to be home to about five adults is a 25-metre deep island estuary called “the hole”.
“We would never usually expect to see bull sharks here,” said Mr Basiso, 41, who has been diving in the capital for 20 years.
“The ones we have seen are up to two metres in length and are usually seen around June. Much more care is needed with this kind of shark.
“They can swim in warm seas and also fresh water, so they are very adaptable.
“We have also seen a lot more dugongs than in previous years, it is a good sign that marine life is recovering.”