This is the incredible moment a whale shark gulped down a never-before-photographed swirling tornado of plankton.
Warren Baverstock, 49, hung a single light off the back of a boat to attract the phytoplankton the sharks love to eat—and then waited patiently in the dark ocean.
He was delighted when an 11.5-foot juvenile whale shark rose from the depths to gobble up the plumes of gathering food and dived down to capture it silhouetted by the light.
“I was in the water in the pitch black and felt really vulnerable and quite scared,” he said. “When you drop down into the water you can see the shaft of light from the boat, but that’s it.”
But he was astonished to then witness the microscopic plankton display shoaling behavior and spiral into a 13-foot tornado of ‘fish food,’ off the coast of Africa.
Baverstock, from Okehampton, Devon, in southwestern England, captured an incredible photo of the whale shark rising from below the swirling plume, with its jaws parted, feasting on the plankton.
The aquarium director said he has never seen or heard of this behavior and speculates it is microscopic plankton being hunted by larger plankton.
“I was expecting to attract the plankton but had never seen that kind of behavior,” said Baverstock. “It is possible that because of the presence of even microscopic predators, that was causing the smaller plankton to tornado, as a shoaling affect.”
Baverstock, director of Aquarium Operations at the Burj Al Arab Hotel in Dubai, took the photos during his fifth trip to study whale sharks in Djibouti, on the Horn of Africa.
Warren traveled to the Gulf of Tadjoura with a group of researchers to study the spot where hundreds of whale sharks gather to feed between September and January.
Hoping for a dream shot of the animal feasting, he moored a boat 328 feet from the shore in the middle of the night and suspended an LED light from the gangplank.
The light attracted phytoplankton—the primary producers of the open oceans—which are attracted to the light, and in turn draw in bigger predators, which eat them.
On the third night a whale shark approached, but when Warren got into the water with his camera, it moved away.
He jumped in and waited for more than an hour, hoping it would return.
After 1 hour and 15 minutes the beast returned, this time totally distracted by the swirling tornado tower of plankton, which it swooped up to eat, for 10 to 15 minutes.
“To have the whale shark, with the cloud was amazing, but then to see and then capture it with this spiraling tornado of plankton was just incredible,” said Baverstock.
He took the photos by freediving down, and shooting from under the whale, having to dive deep in order to get the whale, plankton, and light in the same shot.