Face to face with one of the largest great white sharks ever captured on camera
Disclaimer: If you find yourself next to a whale carcass with a giant, actively feeding great white shark, 10 out of 10 trauma surgeons and a small army of shark biologists recommend staying out of the water. Seriously, this could have ended badly. Make better choices than the author of this story.
It is easy to forget that we are animals, and we share a planet with others, each trying to eke out a living using whatever advantages we have. As a species, we value our ability to observe and then apply what we learn to new situations. Observation and extrapolation is at the heart of science, problem solving, engineering, and even government intelligence. We aren’t the only animals that have the ability to gather intelligence: animals like cetaceans and cephalopods are also famously brainy. Every once in a while, we are reminded that our life experience isn’t entirely unlike that of the animals with whom we share the planet. I would like to relay such a connection I had a few years ago.
A whale carcass attracts large sharks, but nobody was expecting to see Haole Girl, a giant lady around 20 feet long!
Some good friends from a neighboring Hawaiian island called me one day to be mysterious about gloating. They had found a dead whale floating offshore. In our circles, that alone would be gross and exciting news. Chewing on this carcass was a shark that they claimed couldn’t be identified. One friend used three adjectives to describe it: “It was big, it was white, and it was pointy.” Then he sent a photo. Within a half-hour, I had a reservation on the first flight in the morning and a call-out-of-work-sick email drafted and ready to hit send.
I was plucked from Honolulu Airport at 7am and shuttled straight to a waiting boat. We found the bloated carcass about eight miles outside of the harbor. At one point, it had been a sperm whale, and a big one at that. By the time we found it, the sun had burned the skin off and the fins had all been gnawed away by scavengers. Giant vertebrae stuck out from what I assume was once the posterior end of the thing. The rotting blubber caused a slick that shimmered in the low sun and stuck to boat hulls and swimmers alike. And then there was the smell. It didn’t smell like a rotting animal. The stench was so thick, it coated the nostrils and tongue in something that had a more smokey and unique flavor. The only part of the necrotic behemoth that was whale-like at all was the bulbous head and mouth, and those were pock-marked with countless postmortem cookie cutter shark bites.
Small boats and whale carcasses look a lot alike, and Haole Girl skillfully confused the two!
Another boat had beaten us to the event, and nobody was in the mood to share. My buddy and I were the first to slip into the water. When I haven’t had my beauty sleep, I can be a bit of a diva. The water was cold, I was hungry for breakfast, and the whale carcass wasn’t getting any prettier. Soon, I got bored of photographing a dead whale and went to climb out of the water while my buddy opted to stay in. The other boaters were still all on-board, so my friend cleverly came up with a secret code. “When I say ‘tiger shark,’ you know what I mean and need to get in the water.” It was perfect. Everybody there had seen hundreds of tiger sharks, so it shouldn’t raise an alarm. I hadn’t been out of the water for 10 minutes before my buddy picked his head up and said, “Hey Jeff! There is a tiger shark right under the boat.” I thought, “Who cares? I’ve seen hundreds of tiger sharks in my time…” And that’s when I saw a giant dorsal fin break the surface, preceded by a face that must have been three feet from nose to eyeball.
A bulging Haole Girl can’t resist another nibble
Scramble. Mask, fins, snorkel, camera! I zipped up my wetsuit, then back-flopped overboard. I didn’t have time for the adrenaline to circulate. My full-face view was the largest white shark I had ever imagined swimming slowly and calmly straight toward the splash I had just made. It suddenly occurred to me that I might be remarkably stupid. Every video by Andy Brandy Casagrande of white sharks leaping from the water clutching an unlucky seal in their maw flashed before my eyes. I realized that I might soon be that seal. I realized that I might leave this world as shark excrement. The shark, on the other hand, was just swimming in a direction. It didn’t care about me. It didn’t actually care about my splash. It was so drunk on whale blubber, it wouldn’t have been able to eat me if it tried. But it was coming my way, and it was going to get through me one way or another.
Safe to say that this huge shark ate dead whale meat until she was ready to burst
I moved first. Then we spent the next four hours swimming with it. This was a chance to swim with and observe a hyper predator in a situation none of us would likely encounter ever again. We swam next to it. We watched it rip into the whale a number of times. We watched it hoover up whale blubber chunks bigger than our heads that just couldn’t physically fit in its swelling stomach. At some point, it swam up to my friends’ inflatable boat and lazily raked a three-foot hole up the side. We were hoping to go home in that!
Two hours into the encounter, a pair of rough-toothed dolphins showed up. With the deceased sperm whale and the humans already around, this was the third species of blubbery marine mammal we encountered. Only these ones were interesting. The TV show “Flipper” taught me everything I need to know about dolphins, and one of those lessons is that sharks and dolphins are natural enemies. But when I looked at these dolphins and the shark interacting, it looked like the dolphins were escorting the shark around!
Ragged tooth dolphins hang with a very full giant great white
So what does any of this have to do with connecting people with nature? Well, a few weeks after I took a very stinky inter-island flight home, I shared this experience with a cetacean researcher. He offered this: “Flipper was right. [OK, I added that part.] Rough-toothed dolphins wouldn’t normally be anywhere near a white shark, but in this case, they likely recognized that the predator was so full that it wasn’t a threat. They were using the opportunity to learn about what would otherwise be a mortal enemy.” I immediately realized that what they were doing at that whale carcass was very similar to what I was doing. We are all animals, driven by a fear of predators, feeding our families, and mating. For intelligent mammals (and sure, not-so-intelligent people), new and unique encounters like this build our library of experiences to help inform future decisions for the better.
This image from above shows just how big the shark was—and how full it was after feasting on all that whale blubber
About Jeff Milisen: My profile picture is a bit misleading, as it was taken over a decade ago. I still use it because it fools people into thinking I still have hair. Nowadays, I dive a lot at night conducting blackwater dives with other, like-minded fish nerds from my home in Kona, Hawaii. I’ve won 14 international photo competitions and published in a small tome of periodicals. I even wrote a book, “A Field Guide to Blackwater Diving in Hawaii.” If I’m not home, I can usually be found traversing some remote expanse of ocean for a variety of scientific or photographic reasons. If you want to see photos of plankton, larval fishes, exotic travels, and many more sharks, come visit my Instagram page.
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