This is the incredible moment a whale shark gulped down a never-before-photographed spiraling tornado of plankton.
Warren Baverstock, 49, hung a single light off the back of a boat to attract the phytoplankton the whales love to eat – and then waited patiently in the dark ocean.
He was delighted when a 3.5m juvenile rose from the depths to gobble up the plumes of gathering food, and dived down to capture it silhouetted by the light.
But he was astonished to then witness the microscopic plankton display shoaling behavior and spiral into a 4m tornado of ‘fish food’, off the coast of Africa.
Warren, from Oakhampton, Devon, captured an incredible photo of the whale shark rising 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.
Warren, director of Aquarium Operations at the Burj Al Arab Hotel in Dubai, took the photos during his 5th trip to study whale sharks in Djibouti, on the Horn of Africa.
He said: “”Just getting the whale shark was totally amazing. The people on the boat were really wanting to get in too.
“But to see that tornado, it was the icing on the cake.
“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.
“I was expecting to attract the plankton but had never seen that kind of behavior.
“I don’t know if it is natural behavior.”
“If you look very carefully, you can see all that microscopic plankton is almost pink.
“It is possible that because of the presence of even microscopic predators, that was causing the smaller plankton to tornado, as a shoaling affect.
“I took from this that in fact different types of plankton with the microscopic plankton being hunted by larger types of plankton.
“We [c]an only assume this is the case, because this tornado affect [sic] is not something I have ever witnesses before.”
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 100m 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 kit, it moved away.
He jumped in and waited for more than an hour, hoping it would return.
“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.
“I’m sure there are other predators around, and whale sharks aren’t the only shark in that area.”
After one 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 ten to 15 minutes.
He took the photos by free diving down, and shooting from under the whale, having to dive deep in order to get the whale, plankton, and light in the same shot.
He added: “These photographs are special in such that they were shot using available light of which there was barely any.
“I managed to capture a unique moment which otherwise would never be seen.
“With the bad publicity that sharks get worldwide, this shows that not all sharks are fierce predators that humans should fear—some are gentle giants.”