Updated: Aug 12, 2022
One of the species I get the most questions about is the oceanic whitetip shark. I feel people are so curious of this shark because of its pelagic nature and often times intense interactions with people. I wanted to share some of my favorite experiences diving with oceanic whitetip sharks with you. It is always amazing to see this species in the water.
Oceanic Whitetip Biology
Oceanic whitetips (Carcharhinus longimanus) are typically found in tropical and subtropical pelagic environments. They are most commonly found in the surface range of water 600ft or deeper. Since these sharks typically inhabit open ocean areas they often feed opportunistically on bony fish and cephalopods, although they have been known to feed on other larger prey items. Females have long gestation periods, 10 to 12 months, followed by live birth which makes them especially vulnerable to human impacts. They are unfortunately often caught as bycatch in deep ocean fisheries. (NOAA, 2019).
Oceanic whitetip sharks are known to follow pods of pilots whales. They will feed on the scraps of the cetaceans’ meals. One of pilot whales’ favorite foods is squid. The whales cannot digest certain parts of the squid and will vomit up the scraps. The sharks will also take advantage of this potential meal. It is a very interesting pelagic, symbiotic relationship between cetacean and shark species.
Oceanic Whitetip Behavior
Shark species living out in the open ocean often exhibit slightly different behavioral traits than more coastal species. Oceanic whitetip sharks are no exception! This species has a reputation for being very spunky and confrontational.
Pelagic species of sharks often have behaviors in one of two extremes. They tend to be extremely cautious or extremely curious/intense. Species occupying deep, offshore waters are much less likely to encounter divers or any other animals. When it comes to encountering new or unfamiliar animals (or divers) in the water, oceanic whitetips may show a lot of interest as sharks are naturally curious by nature.
Compared to more coastal species, oceanic whitetips are likely to be less territorial as they roam long distances in the open ocean. However, they can be more competitive as they are heavily opportunistic when it comes to hunting. When diving with oceanic whitetip sharks you may notice more extreme body language like pectoral dropping, jaw gaping, and/or checking.
My Experiences Diving With Oceanic Whitetip Sharks
I very rarely see oceanic whitetip sharks as part of my everyday job. Most of my experiences diving with oceanic whitetip sharks comes from adventures over to the Island of Hawaii. While I am well aware that oceanic whitetips can be a very intense species to share the water with, I have had nothing but incredible interactions with this species.
The first time I encountered an oceanic whitetip they instantly became one of my favorite species of sharks! I was diving with my friends Jim and Ali and we had a small female approach us while diving in deep water. She was very curious but wasn’t showing any signs of competition. She repeatedly circled back to us over and over again after continuous redirection. Ali was even able to remove some fishing line from her mouth.
All of my interactions since then have been mostly shy individuals that made a quick distant pass as they followed behind pilot whales. These individuals were definitely on the more extremely cautious side of the spectrum. Most recently, I got lucky to see a more curious individual while diving with Kaimana Ocean Safari that broke away from the pod of spinners to spend a few minutes circling our group before swimming away.
Things to Keep in Mind When Diving With Oceanic Whitetips
While I have had nothing but amazing and positive interactions with oceanic whitetips, they are definitely a species to use caution when encountering. Because of their pelagic nature they can be highly competitive and curious. If you are new to sharks and reading their behavior, this is not a beginner species. I would never recommend trying to dive with oceanic whitetips without an experienced guide.
If you do happen to be lucky enough to have a rare encounter with this species be hyper aware of your surroundings in the water. Especially when traveling with pilots, it is possible that if you see one shark there could be more in the area. So don’t get too fixated on a single shark.
Do not dive down vertically in the water column, unless approved by a guide with a lot of oceanic whitetip experience. This species can be highly stimulated by up and down movement and you could elicit some unwanted attention by diving deeper.
Ultimately, like with any shark, if you don’t feel comfortable staying in the water, get out. It is important to respect any species of shark as the apex predators that they are.
If you get really lucky and have the opportunity to dive with oceanic whitetip sharks enjoy! When diving with an experienced guide, this can be one of the most magical shark species to encounter.