Explorers Connect

Meeting The Oceanic Whitetip Shark: A Once In A Lifetime Encounter

Trip Report, Adventure RevolutionJames Hipkiss
"Every dive we emerged with Cheshire grins and wild tales to share"

Expectations were high; our group had travelled from across the globe to see a fish few rarely encounter, but as we lay sprawled across the deck seats of our tiny chariot for hours on end we all began to wonder if all of our hopes were in vain.

We had set out early from a small makeshift dock on the eastern shore of Cat Island in the Bahamas in search of an elusive pelagic shark, the oceanic white-tip. We were a motley crew with one thing in common, a love for sharks. Each of us had our own reasons for being out on the water that day. While we passed the time by recanting endless stories of our previous shark experiences the anticipation of our upcoming adventure heightened. The joys and thrills, the images captured and moments caught on tape; it was the one thing all of us had in common, we were all shooters. Each one of us hauled and loaded an immense pile of camera gear onto the tiny boat in hopes of capturing our encounters on film.

As we sat, unprotected in the sweltering hot Bahamian sun hour after hour, our hopes slowly began to wane, that was until our Bahamian Captain began jumping up and down at the stern of the boat yelling, SHARK!!. She was a beauty. Gliding only inches below the surface, her long pectoral fins with their splash of white at either end reflected brightly under the waves. In an instant the boat came alive with the realisation that our patience and faith had paid off; we had our oceanics. Immediately we were up, shuffling around the deck, grabbing snorkels, masks, collecting cameras, fumbling around each other; each of us clamouring to get into the water as quickly as possible. The grace and elegance of an oceanic is balanced by their bold stature in the water.

They move with confidence, unafraid of boats or the presence of divers. Once all of us had entered the water, we fell spellbound to her beauty as she weaved through our group in slow, methodical figure eights. A large portion of the group had jumped in with free diving gear, while a few decided on SCUBA. She approached both types of divers without hesitation, boldly playing games of chicken with each diver, brazenly turning at the last second, occasionally even allowing her exceptionally long pectoral fin to run across a divers camera or chest. Our interactions with her were cut short as her boldness faltered by the sudden presence of another, larger, female oceanic. Out of the blue the larger shark moved into the pack, without trepidation she made her way to the bait hanging off the side of the boat. Her stature was different from the first however, her sleek lines obscured by a bulging belly full of pups.

Even as a layman I immediately noticed she was pregnant and must be close to giving birth. My heart rapidly broke as I watched her, quickly realising this shark had a previous encounter with humans, leaving her branded with a silver hook pressing hard into the middle of her jaw; the sharp tip embedded deeply into the roof of her open mouth. Her burden also included a large plastic fishing lure and fifty feet of line trailing behind. As she made her circles around and through the divers, we had to be overly attentive to prevent ourselves from becoming entangled in the trailing line, at times manoeuvring around two or three different sections of the nearly invisible hazard. We all knew something had to be done to help her. After retrieving scissors from the boat, a lone wolf in the group waited patiently for his chance to free her. As she slowly made her way over his head he burst into action, coming up quickly beneath her, scissors high and close to her; without hesitation he sliced through the line just in front of the lure. She didn't move, didn't flinch, didn't turn around with appreciation and a wistful wink to say thanks, but we cheered and hollered with delight through our regulators at what had just taken place.

For hours she stayed with us, each of us being granted up-close interactions as she gave us all what we had come there for: To capture this magnificent creature on our cameras. She also gave us hope. Hope that there is still a chance to see these beauties in our oceans. She made our dreams come true that day. Over the week we encountered many species of sharks; bulls, lemons, reef, nurse, and tigers, but none captivated our attention like the oceanics. Every morning the ride out to Charlenes Reef tested our desires to be there. Our small boat beat through the waves, pummelled by the wind swell, the sea crashing over the low-lying bow and into us. But we were paying our dues to Mother Ocean, for a chance to be granted rendezvous with her mystical creatures of the deep; dues that we were more than willing to pay. By the end of the week we encountered several different oceanics, of all different shapes and sizes.

We had spent time with dozens of reef sharks whipping around us, darting in and about divers with energy levels akin to excited playful puppies. We were graced with multiple visits from a set of exquisite tigers, whose strips were so brilliant they seemed to glow in the rays of sunlight. Dorados, barracudas, giant schools of jacks and tuna frequented our boat while she anchored at Charlenes Reef day after day, all to our delight. Every dive we emerged with Cheshire grins and wild tales to share. This reef was every shark divers dream: A place where you could dive day after day and be guaranteed to see up to seven different species of shark.

Words by Amanda Cotton