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Cruise ship passengers help rescue 'very rare' beached shark in New Zealand

Rather than simply relaxing on the beach or going shopping, some Royal Caribbean cruise ship passengers helped rescue a beached shark on a New Zealand beach.

During its 10-day sail around New Zealand from Sydney, Australia, the Ovation of the Seas arrived at Napier, New Zealand, on Wednesday morning.

Passengers were strolling along nearby Marine Parade Beach when they spotted a 12-foot juvenile basking shark that washed ashore. The shark gets its name because it feeds by slowly moving along the surface of the water, appearing to be basking in the sun. The gentle giant's mouth opens wide, filtering out the smallest prey, and is harmless to humans.

"When we first got here, he (the shark) was just lying there and you could see he was trying so hard to breathe," said Karen O’Connor, a cruise ship passenger told the New Zealand Herald.

"We just kept trying to pull him out and dig him out. We got him out a bit but didn’t have the strength to keep pulling."

Royal Caribbean did not immediately respond to USA TODAY's request for comment.

The Department of Conservation was alerted to the shark just before 10 a.m. and quickly dispatched two rangers, a spokesperson from the Department of Conservation told USA TODAY in an email.

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By the time the rangers arrived, the public and local police had helped refloat the shark back into the water. The rangers stayed at the scene to ensure the shark did not wash up again.

The agency said it is grateful to the community and local police for the assistance in the rescue.

Not only is rescuing a shark an uncommon opportunity, but the shark species itself is few and far between.

"This is a very rare record of a juvenile basking shark, a protected species in New Zealand waters," said Clinton Duffy, Technical Advisor Marine for the Department of Conservation, in a statement.

The last sighting of a live basking shark was in 2012, although the species used to be "very common" in New Zealand waters during the mid-late 1990s. The basking shark is the second-largest fish in the ocean, growing up to 40 feet in length.

"It is great to see people getting together to rescue this animal," he said.

Kathleen Wong is a travel reporter for USA TODAY based in Hawaii. You can reach her at kwong@usatoday.com.

This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: Cruise ship passengers help rescue beached 'very rare' basking shark