Nothing compares to being in the water with a 10-foot long, 300-pound oceanic whitetip shark — except being surrounded by 10 of them. They are graceful, bold and inquisitive, and when they glide too close and a fin slaps you with its distinctive white tip (hence, its name), it focuses the mind.
As a rule of thumb, sharks perceive divers as predators or prey, so better to seem like the former than the later. It is important not to swim erratically and to always maintain eye contact; sharks are much more cautious when they know you are watching them.
As divers who study these alpha predators up close, we keep our adrenalin under control and our senses on high-alert.
Today, swimming with oceanic whitetip sharks is a privilege, because so few are left. They have been devastated by commercial fishing, particularly longline fishing that hooks and kills them as incidental “bycatch,” and because of the global demand for shark-fin soup. Driven by this trade, shark fins — particularly those of whitetips, which are large, distinctive and valuable — are sliced off and sold for as much $400 a pound. Worldwide, about 73 million sharks of all kinds are killed each year, primarily for their fins.
This trade is not only brutal, it’s nonsensical. People are obsessed with sharks, leading to a boom in shark tourism. In Florida alone, shark-related dives in 2016 generated more than $221 million and fueled more than 3,700 jobs and $116 million in wages, compared to the entire U.S. export market for shark fins in 2015 of $1.03 million. This is a clear incentive to protect sharks, not kill them.
Studies show that the oceanic whitetip was once one of the world’s most abundant pelagic (open ocean) sharks, but it was listed as threatened under the Endangered Species Act in January 2018, and it is listed as critically endangered in the Northwest and Western Central Atlantic by the International Union for Conservation of Nature’s Red List.
Surprisingly little is known about the oceanic whitetip, and that’s why we’re part of a research team that has been swimming, photographing, tagging and observing them for nine years.
Our team’s studies show that whitetips prefer the warm, tropical and subtropical waters found in the upper layer of the open ocean. They are generally solitary and slow moving, but they will swarm around prey.
What we don’t know is critical to helping them survive: Where are their breeding and nursery grounds, and what are their migration patterns? This information would enable governments to better protect these sharks during critical stages of their lives.
With partners including Florida International University, Microwave Telemetry and the Cape Eleuthera Institute, we are tagging whitetips with satellite tracking devices to follow them year-round. Researchers will discuss their findings during an oceanic whitetip shark workshop at FIU held by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration on Nov. 13-14.
Tagging typically involves capturing a shark and bringing it to the surface to manually insert a tracking device, which subjects the shark to a lot of stress. Recently, on another expedition, our team was videoed successfully tagging a bluntnose sixgill shark for the first time ever from a submarine at a depth of more than 1,600 feet.
Tracking data from seven years suggests that pregnant whitetips give birth near the Windward Passage between Haiti and Cuba, with local fisherman confirming the presence of juvenile whitetips along Haiti’s southern peninsula. In an expedition last July, we tagged three whitetips, including a juvenile and a mother that likely had just given birth.
This research will help scientists better understand the species’ migration between the highly regulated waters of the Bahamas — one of the world’s most important shark sanctuaries, where shark fishing and trade are completely banned — and Haiti, where fishing is virtually unregulated.
Our data point to the necessity of coordinating regional recovery efforts between the Bahamas, Haiti, the United States and Cuba. It is equally vital that local fisherman in Haiti be educated on the importance of protecting whitetips and given incentives and taught how to safely release and protect them.
Shark research is becoming more sophisticated every day. But given the threats oceanic whitetips and other sharks face, more research is essential to give them a fighting chance to recover and survive.
Andy Mann is an Emmy-nominated director, National Geographic photographer, marine conservationist and co-founder of 3 Strings Productions. Trevor Bacon is marine program manager for The Moore Charitable Foundation, founded by Louis Bacon.