The moment Steve Whitlock spotted a whale shark fin gliding through the sapphire waters off the coast of Naples last Sunday, he knew he was jumping in.
Whitlock had been fishing for grouper since 7 a.m. with two friends when the estimated 30-foot creature appeared beside their boat later that afternoon. He immediately grabbed his GoPro, threw on a pair of fins and a snorkel, and hopped in.
"My friends thought I was crazy," he said. "They told me I was out of my mind."
The former drug smuggler turned marine illustrator has been living in Naples "since there were two stop signs," though he now resides in Sarasota, and feels just as at home in the water as he does on land.
"As soon as I fell out the boat and swam down I felt totally at peace and totally tranquil," he said.
Whitlock said he spent much of the 80's smuggling marijuana into Naples until he was arrested in 1989 as a part of Operation Everglades. He was charged with conspiracy and spent two years in prison, where he discovered his love of art and painting. The 57-year-old now makes a living creating marine life illustrations and participates in around 40 art shows a year. He's come a long way since his criminal career, and even longer from his days as a paper boy for the Naples Daily News, his first job ever.
Whitlock's friend, Tim Packard, who captains the boat they were on during the encounter, said he's heard about a number of whale shark sightings in Sarasota recently. He speculates the uptick is due to the artificial reef, which has increased the amount of wildlife in the area.
"We hope they continue the artificial reef program because it's very beneficial for tourism and the city of Naples," he said.
Robert Hueter, the director of the Center for Shark Research at Marine Laboratory and Aquarium in Sarasota, says the increase in reports has more to do with the time of year and the widespread availability of technology such as underwater GoPro's. However he acknowledges that the artificial reefs may also be a contributing factor.
"Whale sharks take advantage of food sources so if fish are spawning sometimes they feed on their eggs," he said. "But they'd have to be drawn in from an awful long distance to do that."
Whitlock's video of his encounter has gotten more than 10,000 views on Facebook. He spent about two minutes in the water with the shark, which feeds mainly on plankton, and even grabbed onto its tail for a brief ride before it swam out of sight.
"You know, every time I go out, there's a surprise," he said.
Though he normally only works on commission, he says he may just make an exception this time.
"I've haven't had someone ask me for one, but there's a possible whale shark painting in my future."