Today I faced one of the most dangerous sharks in the ocean.
It was terrifying. It was absolutely beautiful.
I was above myself, watching a movie, not really there. She looked at me and I looked at her, our eyes locked. Suddenly she was real, she was there. So was I. I gasped through my snorkel. My heart raced. My mind flooded. Was I in the water with an oceanic whitetip? What was she thinking, feeling, wanting from this encounter? Was she really turning and swimming right toward me?
We had run out of satellite tags for the day. Lucy Howey of Microwave Telemetry, Inc., one of the project founders, was flying in that afternoon with more tags. One of the primary goals of the research expedition is to monitor the movements and behavior of the endangered oceanic whitetip shark. These sharks can migrate over long distances throughout their lifetime, often crossing international and political boundaries. Yet political and ecological boundaries don’t often overlap. Protection efforts in one country can be overshadowed by destructive fishing practices in another. Understanding shark migration patterns across borders is crucial to their overall protection.
Although the oceanic whitetip is endangered, Cat Island remains one of the best places in the North Atlantic where these sharks can be found. It is a unique place with a steep ocean drop off on its eastern side – and one of the few places where whiteips congregate close to shore. In order to study the shark’s movements, behavior, and breeding grounds, the team fits oceanic whitetips with special pop-off satellite archival tags (PSAT’s). The PSAT stays attached to the shark for about a year, at which time it pops off and transmits the recorded data to a satellite. To date the team has put out over 100 satellite tags, with about 1/3 being recaptures. This gives them valuable information about how the shark have grown, where they breed, and where they have pups, and leads to more targeted and effective management practices.
A shark was circling the boat. Mark Bond and Andy Mann were in the water filming a lone female oceanic whitetip. They hopped out of the water at one point because they thought she was being aggressive – coming in fast toward them and poking the camera, circling around and then heading at them again. But, after a few minutes, they splashed into the water again to give it another try. She had calmed down a bit, or they relaxed, or most likely a little of both. After watching Mark and Andy and the shark circle each other for about 15 minutes, I finally worked up the courage to get in myself. I was terrified. This is the first time I’ve been in the water with a big shark.
The cool blue water consumed me. I tried to stay close to the boat in case I had to hop out fast. I quickly took my bearings and looked around me: there was Andy, there was Mark, and there was the shark. She was 20 feet away, looking at me with curious eyes. She swam down deep for a minute and then circled back, continuing to watch us.
Earlier in the day, I had asked John, a NOAA researcher on the trip, what he like most about these sharks. He said, “Their curiosity.” I now understood what he meant.
She glided smoothly straight toward me. Her eyes, almost thoughtful, checking me out as much as I was checking her out. I looked at her head on. I couldn’t see her body, just her grey oval face and white chin. She was silhouetted by the deep blue sea. Strings of light filtered through the water like a comb and slowly dissipated, overtaken by the dark blue from hundreds of feet below. There was nothing around us: just blue.
This was not my world, it was hers. She was so graceful and sleek; her movements were effortless. As I clumsily fumbled in the water, she almost laughed with her beady eyes that she never took off of me. I waved my arms to push back as she came closer, her body seemed perfectly still, yet she moved faster and with more precision than I ever could. I pushed backward, behind Mark, who had a stick to gently push her away if she got uncomfortably close.
Her approach entranced me: wide set eyes set apart on the edges of her face, jaw slightly agape, stretching straight across her face with the ends of her mouth curving down a bit, touting a somber grin. She had an emotionless, blank, and surprisingly deliberate look – the kind of look that for a second puts you at ease, calming. There was no feeling behind it, good or bad. It makes you let your guard down for a moment, tricking you into thinking she wouldn’t hurt you if given the chance. This is her lure – her effortless quiet swim, her blank stare, as if she is saving every bit of energy for the exact moment she needs it, for that split second she attacks. She is efficient, fierce, strong. Oceanic whitetips are able to survive and thrive out in the vast open ocean because they are agile hunters and artful scavengers. But for today, for right now, she is our friend. Though, I wonder what would happen if we met under different circumstances…
I realized through my encounter with her what magnificent animals these sharks are and the importance of protecting them. This amazing team of researchers is doing important work.