Photographing Oceanic Whitetip Sharks
Oceanic whitetip sharks are an exciting and curious photography subect
By Andy Murch
Sadly, oceanic whitetips have been hunted almost to extinction in much of their range. In the 1980s, one study estimated that the oceanic whitetip population in the Gulf of Mexico had been reduced by 98%—a shocking revelation that eventually led to the species being protected under CITES. Unfortunately, rampant overfishing continues in many areas, so if you are lucky enough to encounter this unicorn of the shark world, have your camera ready!
The large pectoral fins of this species are obvious when shot from below
Sunburts add something extra to the composition and background of images close to the surface
Where to Find Oceanic Whitetip Sharks
Oceanic whitetips are members of the family Carcharhinidae, commonly called requiem sharks or whaler sharks. Most Carcharhinids are found on or around reefs but as their name suggests, oceanics are denizens of the deep ocean, wanderers that patrol the marine desert far from major land masses.
Consequently, divers are unlikely to run into one cruising over a reef, but there are a few spots (always near deep water) where oceanic whitetips regularly make an appearance. Oceanics can be seen at Brothers Reef in the Red Sea, but sightings are far from guaranteed. After a recent attack, the Egyptian authorities banned baiting for sharks, but the sharks have long memories, so for now, they continue to hang around the seamount. If you are keen to see one but don’t necessarily want to get close enough for an image, this may be your best option.
Multiple sharks together are a common occurrence off Cat Island in The Bahamas
If your mission is to capture high-quality portraits of oceanic whitetip sharks, unquestionably, the best place in the world to do so is Cat Island in the outer Bahamas. During April and May, considerable numbers of oceanic whitetips congregate around the island. Again, you’re very unlikely to see one while reef diving, but it is possible to join a dedicated offshore shark trip that baits for oceanics where encounters are a slam dunk.
Cat Island is a hotspot for oceanics because it is surrounded by extremely deep ocean trenches, making it possible to chum in 3,000-feet-deep water, just a few hundred yards from shore. Unlike in the Red Sea, the oceanic dives at Cat Island attract lots of sharks—between five and 20 individuals is the norm. And because food is scarce in the deep marine desert, once the sharks arrive, they tend to hang around all day, unless the boat drifts inshore into water that is too shallow for them to feel comfortable.
A bold oceanic whitetip shark heads for the surface to investigate scuba divers in its territory
Any pieces of bait will quickly get hoovered up by opportunistic sharks
If you are shooting near the surface in clear blue water under sunny skies, you can afford to shoot with a low ISO for virtually grain-free shots. Oceanics move relatively slowly unless they are agitated, so you can also shoot with a moderate shutter speed, although it may be more effective to shoot with faster settings so that you can open up your aperture for maximum strobe effectiveness.
You may be tempted to shoot with natural light. This is definitely an option, but even at 30 feet, the golden skin of an oceanic whitetip shark will look unnaturally green. Even with strobes, you’ll find that it is difficult to bring out an oceanic’s bronzy sheen because their skin is not as reflective as other requiem sharks.
Portrait images best capture how the oceanic whitetip moves up and down the water column
Cranking up your strobes more than normal will mitigate this problem, but those beautiful white-tipped fins will be completely blown out. It’s a tricky balancing act. Experimenting with strobe positioning may help. Try to keep your strobes high so that they’re angled down at the shark’s back and further from their long pectoral tips. Warm diffusers will also help bring out the shark’s true color at lower power settings. If you find that this also adds a yellow cast on their fin tips, you have the option to correct this in post.
Get close enough and the nictating membrane in the shark’s eyes will close to protect them
Due to their bold nature, it is quite easy to get frame-filling portraits, but even when shooting tight compositions, try to compose (or crop) so that the shark’s tail is slightly closer to the edge of the frame than its head, because this always looks more appealing. If you are fortunate enough to have multiple sharks to choose from, look for sharks that have pilot fish or other escorts that add an interesting behavioral aspect to your images.
Two sharks are escorted by a group of rainbow runners, making for an interesting behavior shot
When shooting further away, look for sun rays piercing through the water to make the negative space around the shark more interesting, or try to position divers or other sharks in the background. On the rare occasions where there is a reef visible, see if you can incorporate it into your images. Chances are, the sharks won’t want to swim between the coral heads, but the reef will make a nice backdrop in the distance. Shooting over-unders can also be a fun challenge, best attempted from the safety of the swim step!
Over-unders make surface shots of oceanics much more interesting but are difficult to capture
The round dorsal fin of the oceanic whitetip makes them easy to identify above and below the surface
Oceanic whitetip sharks have been implicated in numerous attacks. They are clearly an excitable species (roughly on par with bull sharks) but they are not as prone to aggression as they are often made out to be. The most damning stories arose after the sinking of the USS Indianapolis near the Philippines during WWII. Of the 900 sailors that went into the water, more than 500 perished while waiting to be rescued. The popular press blamed oceanic whitetips, but most firsthand accounts agree that the majority of sailors died from their wounds, whereupon their bodies were carried away by sharks, rather than the sharks causing the fatalities.
A perfect portrait of one of the ocean’s most iconic pelagic shark species
When conducted by experienced professional shark feeders, baited oceanic dives can be as safe as any other shark feeds, but even then, participants need to remember a few key points. This is especially true for photographers:
- Oceanics pay extra attention to objects floating at the surface so try to descend as soon as you enter the water. If you can, jump with your camera so that you can do a negative entry without resurfacing.
- Avoid bling. Brightly colored wetsuits and fins look too much like flashy fish. Camo wetsuits seem to be especially attractive. At Cat Island, you will almost certainly have close encounters regardless of what you wear, so there is no reason to encourage the sharks to come even closer.
- Always wear dark gloves, and if you have blond hair, gray hair, or no hair, remember to wear a hood.
- Stay away from the bait crate and stay up-current so that the scent of bait is not washing over you during the dive.
- Never grab loose bait drifting in the water column. Oceanics may approach from behind, above, or below, so it is very important that you keep your head on a swivel and don’t lose focus.
- No chimping! There will be plenty of time to review your images once you’re back on the boat.
- If there are more than a handful of sharks present, shoot from the hip so that you can continue to look around while you are composing shots.
- If you have a small camera, carry a push stick—a short PVC pole used to redirect any sharks that try to close the gap.
- Pay very close attention to your depth. At Cat Island, the bait crate is suspended on a line at 30 feet below the surface. With no other reference points, it is easy to drift downwards with your subject without realizing it. When this happens, most of the sharks are likely to break away from the crate to follow you into deep water, because they find falling objects just as interesting as objects at the surface.
Oceanics will investigate anything at the surface so bear that in mind when diving with them!
Even though divers need to be cautious when diving with oceanic whitetip sharks, with their exaggerated pectoral fins, sleek lines, and mottled counter-shading, they are undoubtedly one of the most photogenic and rewarding sharks to shoot—a species well worth venturing away from the familiarity of the reef for.
A well-executed split shot shows sharks at the surface, where they roam the pelagic zone looking for food
Photographers are able to get extremely close to oceanic whitetips on baited dives, allowing for amazing photo opportunites that require wide-angle lenses and some experience diving with sharks
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