[shark fin]

A Surprise Encounter with Oceanic Whitetips

by Chuck Babbitt

It was February 1995, and we were twenty miles east of Kaneohe Bay, between O'ahu and Moloka'i. There were four of us in a 21' Sea Swirl inboard, unsuccessfully trolling and enjoying a beautiful Hawaiian winter day. Four of us...Thad the captain, Sheila his lovely fiancée, my buddy Dan, and myself.

We found ourselves surrounded by a large pod of pilot whales, numbering about forty or fifty animals, slowly cruising west toward O'ahu. The whales were spread out over a couple of acres of blue water, moving very slowly. I grabbed my mask, fins, snorkel, and my old Nikonos camera, and slid into the water. This I discovered later was not a wise thing to do, in addition to probably being in violation of the Marine Mammal Protection Act.

I snorkeled out away from the boat toward a large bull that came into view. As I approached he slowly rolled on his side, eyed me with indifference and went back to cruising. I stayed with him, shooting pictures, for about ten minutes. My heart was racing with the thrill of being so close to such a large animal in the open ocean, nothing below me but a couple thousand feet of blue water.

I swam back to the boat and climbed in, smiling and laughing, completely exhilarated by the experience. Thad and Dan each took a brief turn using my gear, getting to see the whales (actually extremely large members of the porpoise family) cruise by the boat. I still had film left so I grabbed my gear back from Dan and slipped back over the side.

Once again I saw a large bull gliding through the blue, but he slipped off into the distance ahead of me with slow smooth strokes of his tail. Dan threw me a line from the stern of the boat, and they trolled me through the water, around and slightly ahead of the slowly cruising bull. I let go and swam away from the boat to within about fifteen feet of him. I was still excited, but I was also feeling a surreal sense of relaxation and peace. I remembered hearing the story, and seeing the video, of a woman who was dragged by the foot about forty feet under the water by a "playful" bull pilot whale, but these animals did not seem at all interested or annoyed by my presence.

The bull had descended to about twenty feet below, so I took a breath and swam down to get a closer shot of him. As I was swimming down he began to chatter and chirp, the first sounds that I had heard from any of them. As my breath ran short I turned and swam to the surface, and looking off horizontally into the blue I got a surprise. It was an oceanic whitetip shark, escorted by three black and white pilot fish. He was about twenty feet away, his left side to me, sliding by about five feet below the surface. I squeezed off a shot with the camera and, as I hit air, I screamed some unintelligible noise through my snorkel. As I looked back down something caught my eye, I spun around in the water and saw another whitetip about twenty five feet off to my right. Continuing to spin, I saw another one behind me. They were circling me counter-clockwise. This time I hit the surface and spit out the snorkel and yelled at the boat, which looked to be about a mile away (about 150 feet). "Get over here! I'm surrounded by sharks!", I calmly requested. Right. Sheila tells me I screamed like a girl.

I looked back down at the first shark I had seen and noticed that he was a little farther away, but that he was acting funny. His long pectoral fins had dropped slightly, his back was arched, and his snout was twitching and jerking from side to side. I squeezed off a another shot and looked back up for the boat.

Hearing me scream "Sharks!" Thad had gunned the engine and killed it. Luckily it restarted right away, and Dan had rushed to the stern and grabbed the line that they had used to troll me through the water. Dan almost went flying off the swim step when Thad finally engaged the prop and rushed toward me.

I grabbed the line as the boat slid by me, and between Dan's strength and my adrenaline I nearly levitated from the water. We looked back as one of the predators slid by the stern of the boat, certainly disappointed that what must have seemed like vulnerable prey had suddenly disappeared into the air.

I laughed almost all the way back to the boat ramp, stoned from a massive adrenaline overdose. I was later to read in a book on the natural history of Palau that it is not advisable to enter the water with pilot whales as they "often accompanied by large pelagic sharks." Now they tell me.

Oceanic Whitetips (Carcharhinus longimanus) are large open-ocean predators, common in deep tropical waters throughout the world. They are considered by some to be one of the four most dangerous sharks to man, along with Great Whites, Tigers, and Bulls. As they do not approach land they are primarily a danger to shipwreck victims (and idiots swimming in blue water with pilot whales).

As for the size of the sharks that I saw, it would be easy to exaggerate, but I would say that they were in the six to eight foot range. I only got photos of one of them, a male (identified by the claspers on his underside) accompanied by three pilot fish. The other two I saw only briefly as I spun around. I didn't pause to look for claspers or count pilot fish. It's been laughingly suggested by my friends that I was so excited I spun around three times and saw the same shark repeatedly. But I saw three...that's my story and I'm sticking with it.

How much danger was I really in? It's hard to say if I was in immediate danger of attack, but the situation was not good. The physical behavior of the shark I was watching indicated that he was getting increasingly excited and threatening, and I couldn't watch the other two at the same time. I'm sure that my behavior, hitting the surface a couple times, and the pure electrical energy that I was pumping into the water from fear and adrenaline, must been at the least interesting to them. Sharks tend to be cautious, and they probably would have bumped me a couple of times to check out my resistance before trying a taste. Fortunately for me this is all conjecture.

Oh yes, one more detail. The pilot whales had been cruising very slowly through the water for the half-hour or forty-five minutes that they surrounded us. But my friends tell me that right before they heard me calmly request their assistance (right), the entire pod became very agitated and began jumping and swimming back in my direction. What this had to do with me and my little encounter, I do not know. But this happened right at the time I heard the bull below me begin to chatter.

I mean to get the photos digitized so I can send them electronically. Unfortunately they are a little underexposed, but not too bad considering the circumstances.

I am interested in anyone else that has had an encounter with oceanic whitetips, or that knows about their behavior. Why do they follow the pilot whales? Is it a hunter/prey relationship or do they just travel together feeding on the same prey. What is the relationship with the pilot fish? Do the sharks get any benefit from their little companions, or are the pilot fish merely there to feed off the scraps?

I can be e-mailed at <cbabbitt@concentric.net>.

P.S. If you're out there enforcing the Marine Mammals Protection Act, none of this ever happened, and I won't do it again. :)

Copyright © Chuck Babbitt 1996

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