This past week I was blessed with the opportunity to dive with one of the world’s most endangered animals, the oceanic white tip shark. While it was once considered to be the most prolific animal on our planet weighing over 100lbs, its populations have sadly been decimated by over 90 percent.
The oceanic white tip has a nasty reputation. Jaques Cousteau had said that it is “the most dangerous of all sharks.” Its reputation is a result of its incredible curiosity that is often confused with aggression. It evolved this curiosity out of necessity, due to the nature of the environment it calls home.
Being a pelagic shark the oceanic white tip is constantly traveling the open ocean. Unlike reefs, which are teeming with life and easy meals around every corner, the open ocean is a very barren place. This shark is a desert wanderer. The life of pelagics are very difficult. Meals are few and far between and in a world where ones next meal may be days or even weeks away this shark wastes no time investigating anything and everything it encounters. This is the target species of our expedition.
We boarded my good friend Jim Abernethy’s liveaboard vessel the Shearwater in West Palm Beach, Florida. A 65 foot shark diving boat with the best crew in the business. From there we had 2 days of travel to get down into the southern end of the Bahamas. Being such a long journey, the trip is broken up with a few stops.
Our first stop was exploratory in nature. There was rumor of a Navy buoy in the middle of the ocean that is said to be so infested with mako sharks that fishermen cannot land a fish without a mako tearing it up. Naturally this sounded like an ideal place to go diving and break up the voyage. After a few hours of research we got the GPS coordinates and headed out to the buoy. We spent few hours out there and disappointingly, it was dead. We hopped in a couple times and saw hardly any life. A couple jacks some small yellow tails and that was about it. Definitely no makos. Seemed to be nothing more than another over exaggerated fishermans tale, but this is exactly how many of the best dive sites in the world have been found. It just doesn’t always pan out. Hey no risk no reward and exploration is always a gamble, but that’s what makes it fun.
We left the buoy and headed for our next stop, which was much more of a sure thing. An island whose inhabitants sound more like the characters from the book Animal Farm than the custodians of an uninhabited Bahamian island. The island is home not to tropical birds, lizards or monkeys but to livestock. A couple goats, some chickens and best of all some huge pigs that love nothing more than taking a dip in the clear blue sea. As soon as our boat pulled up the pigs hit the water and swam out to greet us. Looking out at this juxtaposed scene you can’t help but wonder if there is a slaughter house out there somewhere with a hole in its barn that is missing some inventory. These pigs have been conditioned by boats visiting the island and feeding them. They now associate new visitors with easy meals and these pigs mean business. He who holds the food had better give it up or risk being mugged for it. Patience is clearly not a pigs strong suit. The more I think about it the more certain I am that these pigs are on the run, escaped from a farm somewhere and hiding out on this deserted island. Looting in coming boats like a band of misfit pirate pigs. All joking aside this was an incredibly unique experience and one I will never forget.
We spent a few hours laughing in the water as pigs swam by rambunctiously chasing whoever had the food and taking photos of these hefty models swimming in the surf with the beautiful island as backdrop. One of the most unique wildlife encounters I have ever been a part of and had this been the only stop on our trip it would have been a great one. But this was just the beginning.
Next it was off to the sharks. After a couple days of travel it was nice to wake up ready for oceanics. This is one of the few sharks that I had never dove with before and I was about as excited to get in with them as a Bahamian beach pig around a fresh crop of tourists.
On our first day I was so pumped up to see these guys that as soon as we got to the buoy I got ready and headed in as fast as I could. As soon as I hit the water I saw one. It swam in to investigate me, delicately curious and incredibly graceful. As she approached slowly and tucked her exageratedly long pectoral fins, I was in awe. This is the most magestic shark I had ever seen. With its cat like eyes and long, rounded, fins speckled white at the tips, it was hard not to get lost in her beauty, but after having been sternly briefed on always checking behind me I took my head out of the viewfinder to see a second one behind me. Being in the prescence of these incredible creatures was amazing. As one of them left a couple of reef sharks and a small silky shark showed up. We dove with them for a while before we drifted into shallow water and had to pull up the buoy and head back out to deep waters, to do it all over again.
Our second day with the oceanics brought some unexpected guests. While we were waiting for the sharks to show up we happened upon a large pod of pilot whales. I had never swam with them before. As we waited to hop in, I mentioned to my buddy that this could be great for oceanics. When he asked why I told him that oceanics usually follow pods of pilot whales feeding on their scraps. Thinking nothing of it with the boat barely slowing down we dove in and swam full speed after the pod. Immediately as if out of nowhere an oceanic white tip came charging in and bumped right into my dome! It was amazing. I guess I was right. Oceanic white tips definitely do follow pilot whales. Incredible. A completely natural, un baited encounter with two of the oceans great predators. The pilot whales were shy and not too interested but to swim simultaneously with a pod of 20 pilot whales and an oceanic white tip was nothing short of amazing.
The next morning we had a very special moment. We awoke to two of the smallest baby tiger sharks I had ever seen swimming under our boat. They could not have been more than 4 feet long. Being so young their markings were clearer and more vivid that any tiger sharks I had ever seen. We had hoped to get in with them but they shot right out to sea, well before we had a chance to get geared up.
The days progressed with similar action, and diving with oceanics never gets boring. They are bold and beautiful animals and it is constantly thrilling to dive with them. The only thing that was slightly disappointing, more so to returning guests than myself was that compared to previous trips they were significantly less abundant. Last year people said they would have up to 25 bold oceanics at once day in and day out, but that was in late April during the first week of the season. We never really had those kinds of numbers. We came a bit too late in the year, early June, and it did not help that a week before a group of scientists showed up and outfitted 30 different sharks with 3 tags each, which we speculate caused many of them to leave the area. As I have read trip reports from earlier expedtitions it seems that they did have huge numbers this year as well, just earlier in the season. For this reason I will be returning next year during the first week of the season at the end of April 2013 which is consistently the most action packed week. This is when these waters are teaming with oceanics.
As our time with the oceanics came to an end we headed back to Florida, but not before making a pit stop in the dolphin grounds off of Bimini where we had the chance to swim with atlantic spotted dolphins. It was great, as swimming with dolphins always is. We swam our butts off, got some good shots and with that our trip came to an end.
It’s always tough when expeditions come to an end. This trip more than usual really made me realize how fragile our ocean is. We need to take action if we are to have any chance of turning things around and for many animals out there like the oceanic white tip it could already be too late. This magnificent creature is teetering on the edge and unless drastic changes are made it won’t be long until its fate is no different than that of the dinosaurs. To think that these incredible animals are on the verge of extinction saddens me deeply. If you would like to make a difference please support organizations that are truly doing something out there like Shark Savers and Wildaid. If any of you would like to have the chance to dive with these magnificent creatures while they are still here I have chartered the Shearwater for the first week of the 2013 season which has proven year after year to be the most action packed of all weeks. If you would like to join me please contact me as soon as possible as spots are filling up quickly.