Oceanic white-tip shark expedition trip report

I'm told often by folks who have been on the ocean for decades that that oceanic white-tip sharks (Carcharhinus longimanus) were once one of the most common sharks in the ocean. In a classic scene in the movie, Blue Water, White Death, Peter Gimbel, Stan Waterman, and Ron and Valerie Taylor swim in open water with hundreds of oceanic white-tip sharks, who are all feeding on a whale carcass. These days, oceanic white-tips are consistently found only in a few places in the world, and divers are lucky if they encounter even a few individuals at once. I had dinner with shark scientist Samuel "Doc" Gruber in Miami while I was in the area, and he was overjoyed to see photos of oceanic white-tip sharks taken so recently. He told me that decades ago, they were "everywhere," but that it had been many years since he had seen one alive.

The Bahamian oceanic white tip shark population is still somewhat of a mystery; no one really knows when they are in the area, nor where they go when they are not there. In an exploratory trip with Brian Skerry and National Geographic, Jim Abernethy found oceanic white-tip sharks in the Bahamas three years ago after hearing reports from fishermen. Two years ago, I went on a successful exploratory trip in June to photograph the sharks. In 2007, JASA had an epic trip in May, in which divers swam around for days with more than 20 oceanic white-tip sharks at once--an encounter that seems impossible to those of us who are in search of such experiences! Two months later, a Wetpixel expedition made the 32-hour crossing, hoping for a similar encounter, but there were no sharks to be found. The water temperature was abnormally warm (84 degrees+), and it seemed as if the ocean was completely dead. We didn't even see a single game fish in the water, a fact that may have been tied to the absence of sharks.

Still, JASA had managed to arrange successful shark encounters in May for three years in a row, so in 2007, I booked a May expedition date for 2008 to maximize the chance of a good encounter. On the morning of Friday, May 9th, eight of us boarded the M/V Shear Water and began the crossing to Cat Island. The next 32 hours passed by in a sort of haze; everyone seemed to be passed out in their bunks, and there was almost never more than one person in the salon at a time. The only person who seemed to be awake during normal hours was Stella, who sat in the corner and worked diligently on translation assignments (so I hear—I was one of the ones who only emerged late at night).

Crossing conditions were really good, and I couldn’t believe how calm the water was. The ocean was a mirror, pulsing slowly up and down with only the slightest motion. We pulled up close to Cat Island in the late afternoon on the 30th, and a few minutes later, the back deck erupted into frantic activity... (continue reading for full trip report)