Close Encounters of the Oceanic Kind

Shooting oceanic white tip sharks

In May 2011 off the coast of Cat Island in the Bahamas, we set out in search of oceanic white tip sharks. The bill fishing is good there, particularly for marlin and sailfish. The island is well-known among sport fishermen as a very hard place to land a fish on the boat without a shark eating it first.

Local fishermen explain that in order to land these large fish in these waters, they have to use alternative techniques. Oceanic white tips are listed by the World Conservation Union as a vulnerable species. They are often caught as bycatch by deep-sea fishing operations.

Instead of using a heavy gauge fishing line as they would elsewhere, here fishermen use lighter tackle and let the shark chase the sailfish from the deep water to near the surface, where the angler quickly reels the sailfish in. Catch and release is the primary form of fishing here, so the objective is to let the fish go unharmed once brought to the boat.

Stuart Cove, of Stuart Cove's Dive Bahamas, fellow shooter Marko Dimitrijevic and I set out on a three-day quest off the deep waters at Columbus Point, Cat Island in search of oceanic white tips, named for their strikingly dramatic large fins splashed with white. This species is found in open ocean in deep tropical and subtropical waters throughout the world often accompanied by an entourage of remora and sometimes pilot whales. Oceanic white tips are a large, stocky species with lengths recorded up to 13 feet.

In order to attract the attention of the oceanic white tips, we went trolling for fish. Sometimes it took an hour or so to catch the first dolphin fish, barracuda or small tuna, but once a fish was thrashing around on the line, it did not take long for the oceanic white tips to show up, confirming the local sports anglers' claims. Once we had their interest, we would keep them at the boat by chumming lightly with scraps of fish we'd buy at the marina, mostly the detritus after anglers would filet dolphin fish and tuna.

Once the sharks were at the boat, we'd slip in with scuba gear. Generally we were in 200-feet of open blue water, so the boat did not anchor. We operated from a "live" boat and we all drifted in unison with the wind, current and chumslick. Windy days were more difficult, because the boat would drift away faster than we could keep up. It took a savvy boat operator to keep the whole circus synchronized. After the first day of trial and error, we developed a good system.

Most of the shark action was in the top 25 feet of water, even though occasionally the sharks would dive deep. We stayed mostly at 20 feet or less, rarely exceeding 30 feet. We stayed where the bait was drifting in the shallow water, and inevitably the sharks would return to get their share.

Even the best encounters would last only 90 minutes or so before the sharks became well fed and lethargic. We needed the action and attitude of the first 45 minutes of the encounter to get the best shots. For the first 15 minutes they were tentative, then for the next 30 minutes it was peak action.

On the first day, we had three sharks, four sharks the second, and the third day, as the weather improved and the wind lay down, we had a maximum of five sharks. They were mature adults; I'd estimate their size from eight to 12 feet in length.

They were somewhat bold. Not threatening so much as in control. They didn't seem to be intimidated by us at all, like some sharks might be. These guys were there for the food, and did not seem to perceive us as part of their food chain. This is not to say they did not bump and charge us every now and then. They can certainly move fast when motivated to do so. They are very hydrodynamic sharks!

Clearly, if they wanted to do us harm, we would have had no recourse. But in this scenario, with these sharks, it was not a problem. I wouldn't interpolate this action to be representative of oceanic white tips worldwide though, for we know them to be dangerous shark that have been associated with human attacks in relation to sinking ships and other oceanic disasters. From the data in the Red Sea this past summer, we know them to be lethal, in fact. They were not bothered by our size or the bubbles from our scuba gear, but neither were they particularly aggressive. It was a very rare and exciting encounter to be so close to these massive creatures.

A note from DAN: This type of underwater photography requires years of experience in diving with sharks and underwater photography. It requires very high levels of skill, awareness, confidence and an understanding of the animals. It should not be attempted by anyone who is not a highly-trained and skilled professional and who has not taken every precaution possible to ensure their safety in the water. It is an amazing and thrilling opportunity to see these sharks in such a close and open encounter, but safety should always be your highest priority in the water.
More Shark Coverage
Bites & Attacks
Close Encounters of the Oceanic Kind
Cocos Islands 2010
Conserving Sharks
Extinct for Soup?
Filming Great Whites
Growing Up Sharks
Man Meets Shark
Myths and Truths About Sharks
Shark Identification Quiz
Sharks of the Bahamas
Sharks of the Bahamas: The Slideshow
Shooting Great Whites
The Great White Shark Experience