Our captains and crew are always on the lookout for something special to see or happen. The wide expanse of the deep ocean blue holds many secrets as roaming prey and predators act out life and death scenarios as they migrate, look for food or try to run . There are no easy hiding places out there. The deep, the dark, speed, size, guile, and numbers all play their part. Without a doubt swimming with these pelagic animals is always a highlight but depending on who shows up a different tone is set. In this case it was the stunningly elegant and rare Oceanic Whitetip shark. The nomad of the tropical oceans.
The Oceanic Whitetip (Carcharhinus Longimanus) is a pelagic requiem shark that spends its entire lifetime searching the open ocean for its next food source or mate. They are inquisitive sharks that have been tracked during a study in the Bahamas, traveling 1,900 miles in the warm tropical equatorial waters in a single calendar year.
It demands serious attention as an excited Captain Mike found out this winter.
“We had headed out in the afternoon search of the migratory humpbacks that arrive during the winter months for their annual mating season. The waters surface was calm but alive with dorsal fins and humpback spouts in the distance. We found a pod of Atlantic Spotted Dolphins as they played around the bow of our boat git in the water and interacted with them. Always an amazing experience. That afternoon however, after spending countless days searching the blue waters of the TCI over the last five years, we were graced with the appearance of an apex predator from out of the blue as it slid by just under the surface not far from the boat.
With engines off, it had to be done. I slid quietly off the stern ladder into the slightly cooler winter water with a little trepidation and heightened anticipation as the dolphin vocalizations of clicks, squeaks, and whistles disappeared into the dark blue background. Suddenly there it was. I was face to face with this stunning animal as it came in close to inspect the intruder.
Oceanic Whitetips possibly stalk and follow dolphin pods to scavenge their prey of squid and fish or just to get an easy meal of their highly nutrious feces. Its large dorsal fin cut the ocean’s surface like a knife as it came to investigate whether I was a potential challenger for its food source or not. The distinctive round dorsal and wing-liked pectoral fins with white brushed tips make identification easy for this formidable predator.
Thousands of years of evolution have adapted this shark for long ocean distances, with their large fins acting like wings helping them to ‘fly” them through the water with minimal finning effort. However, they are slow swimmers compared to other species of shark and sometimes make up for their lack of speed with aggression. Unlike other sharks, Oceanis are not shy. Quite the opposite. They like to come in close and see what’s up. Understanding this small part of their social behavior, I stretched my 3ft long freediving fin out in front of my body, claiming the water column around me and trying to keep as upright in the water column as possible, not allowing myself to mimic a usual prey animal.
Calm, steady breaths were needed to keep a regular heartbeat as sharks can detect electromagnetic pulses that the human heart transmits through their sensory system called “Ampullae of Lorenzini.” Staying calm and relaxed allowed the shark to follow suit creating a truly mesmeric encounter. As he approached and came within touching distance of my fins, I felt humbled to share this blue planet with this apex predator”.
Sightings are becoming less common and something that only a tiny percentage of truly lucky people will ever personally experience in their lifetime. Sadly, worldwide practices used by fisheries to catch pelagic fish like tuna and mahi-mahi for human consumption have led to the IUCN labelling this shark species as ‘critically endangered.’ These magnificent predators have become a by-catch getting caught on the fishing hooks that have entrapped their natural prey of pelagic fish. However, neighboring islands like the Bahamas have banned these practices in their territorial waters and still maintain healthy numbers of multiple different shark species.
They are allowing for shark ‘safe havens,’ while Turks and Caicos are working to create them. Preserving these predators that possibly date back to the Devonian period around 380 million years ago for future generations to appreciate is also crucial for the health of our oceans.
Written by Mike Schofield and Philip Shearer