It was that crazy old joke — stick a fork in your food, and then look at the fish. Then, if there’s no fish, it was because you didn’t poke the fish enough.
Elena Somavilla, 54, was enjoying a beach day at Maryland’s Assateague Island National Seashore when she and some friends found a disheveled, black-white beached whale shark.
Ms. Somavilla was jolted and grateful that she had a better vantage point than the other weekend visitors to the island, a popular destination for seafood-loving vacationers from New Jersey and the greater Washington area.
“My husband held it up and I saw the fin and was like, ‘Oh my God, there’s a whale shark here!’” she said.
There are no estimates of how many of the long-lived animals, which grow to weigh hundreds of pounds, have washed ashore from Massachusetts to Maryland each year, but the solitude of their habitat has sometimes proved a disorienting place to swim.
Never mind about killing them for food, Ms. Somavilla wanted to feed the whale shark a fish — then held her nose.
“I thought maybe we should stop and let it eat the fish first,” she said.
To Ms. Somavilla and some park-goers, the encounter had the surreal feel of a bad dream — a nature-confounding squid dangling out of the ocean, starving.
On Saturday, Ms. Somavilla posted her observation on Facebook, explaining that she had “chased the shark into the rocks of Assateague” to eat it. “It bit me in the shorts,” she added. The post quickly went viral, inspiring waves of media attention, a stern letter from the park’s chief of interpretation and a half-dozen phone calls and emails with outraged comments from her son and most of her neighbors.
The park has made no official judgment of Ms. Somavilla’s decision to eat the whale shark, which is what piqued everyone’s interest.
“People have a right to be concerned,” said Erica Seifert, a research manager at the park. “We don’t believe that what she did was appropriate, but it’s a balancing act. Sometimes we can’t know why things happen.”
The Oceanographic Society of Maryland in Cumberland, which works with the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration to protect Atlantic swimmers and marine mammals, issued a statement supporting the park’s position. “The whale shark spends its entire life in the open ocean, and for whatever reason appeared washed up on the beach,” it said. “Since marine mammal behaviors and standards are impossible to understand with certainty, this large organism is too important to the environment to treat it as a mere fish to be removed with little thought.”
Furious locals have followed Ms. Somavilla’s story on social media, and on Monday, Maryland Governor Larry Hogan and Assateague’s state representative, Kevin McDonough, said they had asked National Park Service to turn the beach into a whale shark feeding station.
“The population of marine mammals should not be endangered for any business purpose, and that is exactly what is being done,” said Mr. McDonough, who said his constituents were “deeply offended” by the incident. “A visit to Assateague is a national treasure, and with any business like that at the water’s edge, it should be expected that there are consequences to following the rules.”
Mr. Hogan’s office said the government was evaluating the situation and that appropriate action might need to be taken, but said the request was being reviewed.
Mr. McDonough, an outspoken critic of National Park Service decisions, said Ms. Somavilla had asked to be taken to the state’s forensic laboratory in Delaware for testing to determine whether she had been bitten by the shark or a piece of rock, although that request was unclear.
Ms. Somavilla said she did not believe she was too insensible to try to keep the whale shark alive.
“I wasn’t disappointed,” she said. “I was pleased to see it.”