Behind the Shot-Oceanic Whitetip Shark
I had been working with Kampachi Farms on their drifting aquaculture project. The idea was that by moving the aquaculture cage from near-shore environments to pelagic waters, we could mitigate most of the main environmental impacts that plague the advancement of aquaculture. We worked in month-on, month-off shifts living and eating on a ship that towed a sea-cage full of fish anywhere between 10 and 70 miles offshore of the Kona coast. My job was to feed and dive the cage twice a day while also implementing any number of progressive ideas trickled down to us from the management. Along the way we ran into all kinds of interesting animals. Well, by we, I mean my coworkers got to watch as all sorts of dolphin and whale and almost everyone saw a whale shark swim by the cage. For some reason, I mostly saw oceanic whitetips.
The first one I saw was during the first month of the trip. There were no fish in the cage yet, so it was basically just a huge, unanchored FAD buoy. We were still working out how best to tether to the cage while divers were deployed. I had the idea to use a polypropylene tether because it floats. Everyone agreed, "Great, do it." It was windy out so when the vessel nosed back on the tow-line to drop me off at the cage, it was blown back almost as soon as I was in the water. I clipped the line in, but not before the vessel had blown about 300 feet back. I was very familiar with the various stories surrounding the nasty reputation of oceanics, but I had yet to experience one for myself. When I looked off into the blue, the unmistakably elongated pec fins were swimming in my direction. I poked my head up just long enough to motion for "shark" then ducked back down, but it was gone. I back-paddled toward the vessel and climbed aboard to watch the first shark of the trip slink its way up my scent trail and start circling the boat. Back in the water, the animal displayed a certain boldness I later came to respect in this species. We jumped back in the water carrying shark pokers which were simply lengths of PVC pole used to fend the animals off when they got too close. I held mine out as the shark swam right up, bumped the pole with its nose, and swam off about 50 feet. After thinking about it for a second, the shark came right back and repeated the bump.
Over my time on the Machias, I encountered a number of whitetips, some more inquisitive than others. The last one we saw, however, was by far the boldest. My buddy and I jumped in to swim out to the cage but didn't make it more than 50 feet before the shark was on us. It stuck much too close for comfort. I tried poking the shark with my camera housing multiple times, but instead of going away for a bit, it simply dodged and circled closer. The above photo is of that shark as it was turning toward me, literally inches from my dome port. The whole encounter lasted only about 15 minutes, but I managed three of my all-time most memorable images.
Want to see what makes an oceanic whitetip different from a whitetip reef shark? Check out my Hawaiian Shark ID page.