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A (Smelly) Whale Tale
By Josh Schellenberg, April 9, 2024 @ 10:00 AM (EST)

A tiger shark swims beneath the bloody carcass of a deceased sperm whale, Florida, USA
 

It is not often that we, as divers and photographers, are lucky enough to witness natural feeding behavior of large predatory sharks. When a friend and I got word that a dead whale was seen offshore with great whites feeding on it, we jumped at a potentially once-in-a-lifetime opportunity.

By the time we were able to get out to the carcass the next day, unfortunately, the great whites had disappeared. However, the deceased whale was swarming with tiger sharks picking up the great whites’ sloppy seconds! From juveniles to huge, beefy adults, males and females, all were sharing in the bounty. It is uncommon to see male and female and adult and juvenile tigers hanging around together, but a dead whale is an uncommon occurrence that cannot be passed up. Sharks will gorge themselves until it looks like they’re uncomfortable swimming and with a feast as large as a sperm whale, there is plenty to go around.
 

Two big tiger sharks, stuffed to the gills (literally) with dead sperm whale, Florida, USA
 

The title of this article is not hyperbole. As we approached the carcass, the stench was overpowering—it hit our noses like a freight train of decay and it was everything we could do to keep our breakfasts down! I was unsure if I was hurrying to get geared up because I was eager to get in the water and photograph the spectacle, or to simply escape the smell!

When we were finally suited up and able to get into the water, the top several feet was a decidedly unpleasant mixture of saltwater, oil, blood, and blubber. Immediately, we were face to face with several large tiger sharks. It wasn’t until I approached more closely, prepared to capture the raw intensity of the moment, that I realized just how many sharks were on the scene. Tigers were approaching from every angle. I’d attempt to aim my camera at an individual only for three more to sneak up from behind me. At one time, I counted six tiger sharks actively feeding on the carcass.
 

Two large tiger sharks tearing chunks out of the carcass of the sperm whale, Florida, USA
 

In the midst of all the chaos, surrounded by feeding tiger sharks, I attempted to capture images that would tell a story of strength, survival, and natural history. One of the challenges I encountered was that no matter what angle I photographed the carcass from, it no longer resembled a whale after a day and a half of huge predatory sharks feeding on it. I am no stranger to photographing sharks at the surface so I am quite familiar with the techniques and settings necessary to best shoot them. My settings for most of this shoot were f/10 and 1/200s, adjusting my ISO as necessary.
 

A tiger shark takes a break from feasting to cruise by and eyeball the camera, Florida, USA
 

Countless dives in the water with sharks came in handy during this most intense of encounters. Keeping track of multiple big tiger sharks at once can be difficult and while of course they do not hunt people, every big predatory shark carries potential danger and deserves respect and utmost attention. Photographers can get themselves into trouble spending too much time looking at the back of an LCD screen or reviewing images. There were moments of intense action that warranted our undivided attention, and it was more important to keep an eye on sharks from all directions than it was to shoot images.

With memories and photographs to last a lifetime, we returned to the boat, grateful for the opportunity to witness an incredible natural spectacle in all its untamed glory. While the memories from this experience are indelible, I will reiterate how important it is to remember that sharks are apex predators and while all three of us were experienced shark divers, it was still a potentially dangerous and volatile situation. This is absolutely not the scenario in which a diver should be in the water alone nor a situation for anyone without lots of shark experience. Social media is loaded with videos of swimming peacefully with sharks. While this is the goal and it is a privilege to share space with sharks in their environment, we must remember they are predators and do carry a potential for danger.
 

Tiger sharks swim alongside the carcass of a sperm whale, Florida, USA
 

A juvenile tiger shark, still young enough to be sporting a contrasty pattern, takes a bite out of the whale carcass, Florida, USA
 

To see more of Josh’s work and to see some more pictures and videos from this incredible experience, please give him a follow on Instagram.

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