During a family vacation, biologists Kapua Kawelo and her husband, Joby Rohrer, were enjoying an afternoon snorkeling with their children off the coast of Kaunolu Bay, Hawaii, when a 20ft whale shark emerged from the blue.
Initially excited by the presence of the endangered creature, their shared euphoria quickly changed to collective concern when they noticed a dense swell of fishing rope wound tightly around the shark’s midriff, cutting into its fins.
Growing emaciated as the entanglement threatened its life, the slender shark was in need of desperate, life-saving assistance – and thankfully trained free-diver Joby was on hand to help.
Diving down up to 40 meters deep and wielding a four-inch knife, Joby cut at the rope for 30 seconds at a time, before resurfacing to catch a breath.
With the rope being several inches thick and weighing more than 10 stone (around 150 pounds), Joby had to relentlessly hack at the rigging across five separate dives, spread across 20 minutes.
Relieved to see the shark swimming freely again, Kapua, who observed her husband’s heroics at a safe distance on July 29, believes this chance encounter was meant to be.
She said: “Being of Hawaiian ancestry, we feel that it was meant to be for us to be at this specific spot, on this day.
“The Hawaiian word ‘kuleana’ sums it up – it means ‘responsibility.’
“It was just a case of right place, right time, and with the right skills.
“Initially we were super excited, then we realized that the whale shark was in a lot of trouble.
“The shark stayed with us for an extremely long time, which we took to indicate that it needed our help and perhaps stayed around until we decided to assist.
“We swam with the whale shark for about one hour before taking any action.
“There were a lot of apprehensions to limit the amount of stress for the animal, but also Joby’s safety.
“First he dived down close to the animal to see how it reacted; second, he pulled at the rope to see how the shark responded; finally, feeling it was safe he started to cut it.
“We were later told by experts that the entanglement would’ve been fatal.
“I think most humans have a fundamental connection to the natural world and this was such an incredible experience of connection, with a huge and beautiful animal that needed human assistance to undo our negative impact.”