Three fishermen visiting from South Georgia shared a once in a lifetime experience two weeks ago when they filmed the biggest one that got away ever.

Joe Bendis, who along with Brad Riner and Wendell Stone are frequent visitors to Franklin County, said he housesits a trailer in Lanark Village and frequently brings down his 25-foot fishing boat, the Celestial Crab, to spend time on the water with family and friend.

On Sept. 29, Bendis, Stone and Riner were about 30 miles offshore and Bendis was struggling to unhook a shark without losing a finger when Riner told him a whale shark had come to the back of the boat.

At first, Bendis thought it was a joke.

“I never expected to see a whale shark,” he said. “It’s a first for all of us. It was very surprising.”

The big fish remained nearby as Bendis succeeded in unhooking his catch and all three men rushed to the stern to view the rare creature.

But it submerged fairly quickly, and .because their cell phones were stowed in a waterproof bag, none of the men got pictures of the monster fish, Bendis said.

They fired up the engine and attempted to return to the exact place of the original sighting and, to everyone’s amazement, when they reached the spot and allowed the engine to idle, the whale shark resurfaced.

“We were all scrambling for phones,” said Bendis.

The shark, at least 30 feet long, seemed attracted to the boat’s engine and hung close to it in the water. Bendis retrieved his GoPro camera which was in a waterproof container and begin filming underwater although he could not be sure what he was filming.

Bendis said the giant fish, “came up to the dive platform, and Brad and I both touched it. Wendell Stone tried to touch him but didn’t quite make it.

“We been given grief for not going in the water with it but when this is happening, it’s not the first thing on your mind,” he said.

All told, the experience lasted from about 3:45 to 4:45 p.m., with the shark returning to the Celestial Crab at least six times. Bendis said.

“It was definitely boat-related,” he said. “He seemed to come back when the boat idled. If we moved he would come back.”

Bendis and his friends were thrilled with their hour-long interaction with one of the rarest creatures on the planet.

“I wish I could share this with every member of the fishing community. The only thing that would have made it better was if Celeste and the kids had been there,” he said. “I just hope people understand what gentle giants these creatures are and that no harm ever comes from them.”

Celeste Bendis, a masters student in Tallahassee, said she regrets having opted out of the fishing trip to study. “I’d have been in the water with it!” she said.

The Celestial Crab is named both for Celeste, and for Joe Bendis, who was born under the Zodiac sign of Cancer.

Bendis, Riner and Stone immediately began to communicate their rare adventure to the world.

“Brad had a cell phone and, when we were coming up the Carrabelle River he had already posted to the internet,” said Bendis.

Little did they expect their story would resonate around the world. Within 24 hours, friends and relatives began to call to tell the men they saw the video on television in points as far removed as Chicago and California.

“I think people are tired of hearing about murders and politics and Syria and Afghanistan,” said Bendis. “I think they want a feel good story. It’s such a big, ugly, cute animal.”

The three fishermen went online and found a website maintained by researchers at the University of Southern Mississippi requesting information about whale shark sightings.

Bendis said researchers were able to conclude the whale shark was a male. The research group maintains a database of whale sharks in the Gulf, identifying individuals using the pattern of spots on the fish’s left side. Unfortunately, Bendis’ GoPro pictures show the shark’s right side, so it’s unclear if this was an individual that had been photographed in the past..

Bendis said he studied biology as an undergraduate and both Stone and Riner are educators, so they immediately recognized the whale shark and were not afraid of the enormous fish.

Master waterman Joe Barber of Carrabelle and Apalachicola called their experience amazing. He said, in 90 years spent on and around the Gulf, he has encountered a whale shark only twice.

On the first memorable occasion, he was fishing offshore when he and a crew member spotted the enormous animal surfacing just a few feet from their boat.

“We sat down and waited to see what it would do,” he said, recalling stories of fish bumping boats and capsizing them. But, the whale shark proved not to be aggressive and soon disappeared below the surface of the Gulf.