Looking off the stern while assembling my dive gear, I see the distinctive round, white-tipped fins cutting the crystal-clear azure water…
These fins that were once a common sight at sea, have become a rarity. Admittedly, although I am a seasoned diver with plenty of experience with sharks, I was feeling a bit apprehensive about rolling into the water in the midst of a pack of ‘sea dogs’. Given the nickname for their habit of closely following ships in hopes of scoring discarded scraps to eat, the Oceanic whitetip shark was ranked one of the most dangerous shark species by Jacques Cousteau himself.
I was now preparing to spend some focused time up-close with these sharks of notoriety, and it was an experience that I had long sought after. The species is closer than ever to extinction due to various pressures, including the demand for their fins and ending up as bycatch in commercial fishing vessels.
I was drawn to these sharks not only by their mystique, but also their unique form and reputation for intelligence. As me and a fellow diver were preparing to roll in, one of the other divers on the boat, Mary, turns and asks: “Are we crazy for doing this?” “Maybe?” I responded jokingly. We backrolled into the water.
As I hit the water, I immediately met an Oceanic face to face. The question I asked Mary was replaced with adrenaline and the intensity of the moment. The Oceanic whitetip sharks, unlike any other species I had been in the water with, were not shy by any means. We were being closely circles and even brushed against. It became clear that we were now in their domain. Sinking deeper into the blue, the mood softened and the space expanded. Feelings of apprehension gave way to the weightlessness of floating through the bright blue waters that shimmered with radial rays of light.
In and out of the blue, Oceanics began moving around us, their bodies gracefully drawing s-shaped curves as they passed above and below. The experience embodied a complex mix of emotions – surprise, curiosity, reverence, and a heightened state of awareness.
The first encounters were an opportunity to settle in, and get a sense for the energy and mood of this group of sharks. Hovering in the open blue, the ocean floor deep below us, the Oceanic whitetips slowly glided in and out of view, taking curious, intentful passes with watchful eyes at our small group of divers. These sharks can reach lengths of up to three metres and can weight up to 170kg. Along with their confident demeanour in the water and slow swimming swagger, these sharks have an imposing physical presence. The Oceanic whitetip shark is usually solitary and spends most of its time cruising the top of the water column for long distances of open ocean, searching for food. Relying on ‘ram breathing’ which requires constant uninterrupted swimming to pump water into their gills, they can never stop swimming.
Oceanic whitetip sharks feed primarily on pelagic fish such as jacks, tuna, mackerel and squid. The scarcity of food sources in the vast open sea has made them opportunistic hunters known to investigate anything in their vicinity. Tending to move slowly to conserve energy, their powerful muscles are capable of generating short bursts of speeds up to 16 kph. As our group settled into the dives, the oceanics circled us tightly, sometimes passing right through the middle and other times swimming directly at divers – a bold behaviour that felt distinctly different in nature from that of most shark species.
Not unlike dogs, each one presented a unique personality or energy. Of note, one shark in particular was exhibiting a more agitated and at times aggressive posture. From its jawline a large fishing hook was protruding, connected to a fishing line twice as long as its body. At times, the line would catch on another shark or pull in a way that seemed to cause the shark pain, resulting in bursts of frenetic movement; a sad reminder of the threats that humans pose to their long-term survival.
Generally found in tropical and subtropical oceans throughout the world, Oceanic whitetips live offshore in deep water which makes it challenging to have an underwater encounter with them. Cat Island is one of the few places in the world where you can see these nomadic predators. 50 miles long and remotely located on the eastern edge of the Bahamas, this idyllic island was once a hideout for pirates and smugglers in the 1800s.
The Indigenous Lucayan people originally called the island Guanima, meaning “middle waters land” and in 2023 it remains a quiet, undeveloped respite from the modern world. It is characterised by dirt roads and uninterrupted coastlines lined with trees and vegetation, as well as white sandy beaches that give way to the bluest hues of open seas. In July 2011, the Bahamas passed a Shark Fishing Amendment turning the Bahama’s territorial waters into a shark sanctuary.
“The law prohibits any citizen or visitor in the Bahamas from possessing or fishing for shark or shark parts, prohibits the sale of any shark or shark parts in the Bahamas, and prohibits the importation or exportation of any shark or shark products,” it reads. The law covers an area spanning approximately 630,000 square kilometres and protects more than 40 shark species. Legislation and protections for Oceanic whitetip sharks could be pivotal for holding off extinction as these previously abundant sharks have become classified as critically endangered on the IUCN Red List. It’s estimated that the current population has declined by 70 to 80% over the last 60 years.
Over the course of the expedition, I had the opportunity to spend five days of diving in the water at close proximity with this beautiful, highly evolved species. My initial anxieties began to dissolve and were replaced by a deep appreciation for these sharks. The biophilia hypothesis suggests that we as humans possess an innate desire to seek connections with other forms of life.
Oceanic whitetips can live up to 25 years, and in the eyes of these sharks, you can sense an intelligence gazing back. As a photographer, I delighted in their boldness providing plenty of opportunities to appreciate their unique outline experimenting with various compositions and angles. The textured markings on their elongated wing-like fins, the scuffs and scratches in their resilient bodies, and penetrating eyes with nictitating membranes were a joy to watch. Unique in form, the Oceanic whitetip’s beauty is matched with an intellectual curiosity and intensity.
While never feeling in immediate danger, I was also reminded not to become too complacent after being bumped on the shoulder by a close passing individual. The immediacy of the moment and visceral reaction snaps the mind to attention. The present and the connection to these marvels bridges the gap between expectations and reality. When we bring ourselves to fully experience nature, we have an opportunity to rethink our beliefs and develop our empathy to the ‘umwelt’ of other organisms. Being up close and interacting with these highly evolved natural wonders is truly an awe-inspiring and rare experience.
Beautiful ocean stories straight to your inbox.
Join our community.