Blue Water Bandits - Oceanic Whitetip Sharks
FROM OUR ARCHIVE
Hundreds of Red Sea visitors have been thrilled by the sight of seemingly fearless oceanic whitetip sharks at offshore reefs. Douglas David Seifert pays tribute to this most elegant of sharks, whose extreme curiosity may one day prove to be its downfall
The landmark film Blue Water, White Death, released in 1971, was a cinéma vérité documentary about film-maker Peter Gimbel’s quest to find great white sharks and film them underwater. Gimbel had heard reports of great whites tearing the carcasses of harpooned sperm whales into mincemeat in whaling grounds off Durban, South Africa. He hired now-legendary film-makers Stan Waterman and Ron and Valerie Taylor to join him on the adventure of a lifetime, the mother of all shark-diving trips.
The crew departed Durban on a rusting, rented whale-catching scow, Terrier IV, equipped with state-of-the-art anti-shark cages flown over from the US, and followed the whaling fleet far offshore. Unfortunately (but ultimately fortuitously) for the expedition, once a sperm whale was killed, injected with air so that it would float, and left for the pick-up ship, the sharks that arrived to scavenge on the carcass were not great white sharks at all, but blue sharks, dusky sharks, and oceanic whitetip sharks.
Gimbel, Waterman and the Taylors decided to deploy the cages and film the sharks in a frenzy as they fed on the carcass. The footage, shot over several days, is nothing short of extraordinary: hundreds of large sharks milling around the dead whale and taking turns to bite large chunks of meat from its corpse. The team filmed an eerie night dive under the whale and, in what is considered to be the most exciting sequence of the film, they left the safety of the cages to capture the hundreds of sharks in the open water as they scavenge the whale and square up to the interloping divers. In the film, oceanic whitetips repeatedly bash into the bulky 35mm-film camera housings and the divers constantly have to fend off toothy advances.
The impact of that sequence has not diminished 36 years later. Indeed, it can never be repeated: the impact of over-fishing in the intervening years has decimated the shark populations to a degree where there simply are no longer the numbers left to mass and be filmed. Consequently, despite the film’s objective to find great white sharks, the true stars of Blue Water, White Death are the oceanic whitetip sharks (Carcharhinus longimanus).
Longimanus is Latin for ‘long hands’, a reference to their wing-like, rounded pectoral fins, each of which ends with that distinctive white marking. Their behaviour is unlike that of any other shark. Their niche in the sea is to constantly meander the surface and depths of waters far offshore; a solitary pelagic existence where meals come few and far between. Thus, whenever oceanic whitetips encounter a potential food item, they investigate, rapidly and without hesitation, and usually with their mouths.
Normally, oceanic whitetips feed on squid and bony fish such as tuna and mackerel, but the very nature of feast or famine dictates that their diet be less than discriminating. Their stomachs have been found to contain sea turtles, rays, sea birds, crustaceans, trash thrown overboard from ships, and mammals that had somehow found themselves floating in the ocean – including humans.
Indeed, following air-sea disasters, especially in the years before large-scale fishing, survivors have identified oceanic whitetip sharks as the predators that took humans living or dead.
Oceanic whitetips are found in tropical and temperate seas around the world. Though once relatively common, recent studies indicate that their numbers have declined by 70 per cent in the past 15 years. They can reach 4m in length, but most individuals reach a maximum of 3m. They are elegant sharks, perhaps the most beautiful in the ocean, as sleek and graceful as silvertip sharks (Carcharhinus albimarginatus) but not as brawny.
Interestingly, oceanic whitetips are almost always accompanied by a small flotilla of silvery white and purplish-black striped pilotfish (Naucrates ductor). The pilotfish appear to have a symbiotic relationship with the shark, where they remove parasites from it and, in return, are rewarded with crumbs from its kills and, more importantly, are sheltered from predators. They congregate at the shark’s nose, or under the body beneath the pectoral fins, in an area where the pressure wave of a forward-swimming shark offers an easy ride.
Oceanic whitetips typically swim slowly – until they scent or sight food, or are attracted by vibrations in the water – and are active night and day, without ever seeming to rest. In the days of slow-moving sailing ships, these were the sharks that followed in the wake and disposed of anything that fell overboard. They often travel in association with pilot whales (Globicephala macrorhynchus); it is believed that the sharks follow the whales to take advantage of their sonar and acoustic ability to find concentrations of cephalopods and fish.
My fascination with oceanic whitetips began with seeing Blue Water, White Death when I was nine years old. Since then, I have wanted to experience one in person. Little did I realise that their numbers had become so decimated by fishermen in the intervening years that it would become a quest covering thousands of miles and many months until I would find one.
I started in Kona, Hawaii, as a guest of photographer Jim Watt. He said that the oceanics were reliable off the coast due to the large numbers of pilot whales. His reasoning was ‘find the pilot whales and you find the oceanics’. Also, there are a number of FADs (fish attraction devices) or buoys for sports fishermen anchored in deep water offshore, which regularly attract oceanics.
In July last year, we spent ten days of up to 12 hours boating the length and breadth of the Kona coast, from inshore to 40km offshore. We saw several pods of pilot whales and checked the FADs every day, but had zero success in finding the sharks.
Last November, I joined my old friend from Rangiroa in French Polynesia, Yves Lefevre – possibly the world’s best shark diver and certainly one of the craziest – for an expedition to the Red Sea, specifically to find oceanics and, hopefully, thresher sharks. I have dived with Yves and many varieties of shark over the years – tigers, great hammerheads, grey reefs, lemons, silvertips and silkies – and there is no finer guide to finding sharks than him.
It seemed like a slam-dunk. We had intended to dive the offshore islands of the Brothers and Daedalus Reef, but the wind blew hard and unrelentingly for the whole week, limiting the dive sites for all boats to Elphinstone Reef and various bays along the shore.
For several days, we saw no sharks at all, but I was astounded to see how beautiful and how magnificently alive Elphinstone Reef is, despite having 300 divers descend upon it every day of the year. European tourists really are spoilt to have such a beautiful reef so close, and it is no surprise to me why so many wonderful images have come from this site over the years. Vibrantly coloured soft corals, rainbowed shoals of fishes, enormous sea fans, terrific visibility – what more could a diver want? Oh yes, Mr Long Hands…
The wind never abated and the boat rocked like hell. Finally, on day five, a pair of oceanic whitetips appeared behind a neighbouring Russian boat that was dumping its leftover food overboard. Feeding sharks is unlawful in the Red Sea, with huge fines levied against any operator who attempts it. Still, dumping refuse overboard is de rigueur in the developing world, so, with Yves’ encouragement, I took the opportunity to kit up and jump into the water and swim into the Russian trash slick. The rest of the group followed with masks, fins and snorkels; such was their excitement to see the sharks that they couldn’t take the time to put on the more cumbersome gear. This proved fortuitous, as the rest of the group was now restricted largely to the surface, while I could move about alone with the sharks.
My yellow wetsuit paid dividends in attracting the oceanics’ attention. I was no sooner in the water than two adolescent female sharks, about 1.5m in length (small, but at least they were here), were on me like a rash. My first thought was ‘My, how beautiful they are’, quickly followed by ‘Uh-oh, they are really, really, attentive’. I dropped to 10m and had an invigorating game of pushing sharks off with my camera housing’s dome port. I was fine as long as I could see both sharks at the same time. But as I twisted and turned in the depths, one would get out of my field of vision and as I photographed one, I could feel the other colliding with my fins. Kicking and pushing sharks like a strange martial arts character, I was in heaven. After a while, Yves and the others put on their tanks and joined me. Although there were plenty of divers (and their bubbles!) to distract the sharks, they seemed very focused on the yellow wetsuit and a photographer who had travelled so far and waited so long to experience first-hand the beauty of the long hand of the sea.
Afterwards on the boat, as pastis settled any mal de mer from the vessel’s ceaseless rocking, I pondered the disturbing and unquestionable conclusion: if longline fishing of oceanic whitetips (and other sharks) does not stop, and stop now, it is unlikely that even an encounter like mine will be possible in the foreseeable future. The choice is to exert pressure on governments to curtail the harvest of sharks for shark fin soup or live in the bitter memory of having seen the best of the last. It is no longer possible to have a Blue Water, White Death encounter with several hundred oceanic whitetips. Very soon, it may be impossible to see even one.