A historical series by USFWS fisheries biologist Dan Magneson
This is the oceanic whitetip shark – with a school of pilotfish alongside – more about pilotfish later. They are called whitetips because of the white borders on the outermost edges of their fins, and can reach up to 13 feet in length and 370 lbs. in weight, but most are around the 7 – 10 foot range
The ancient mariners used to call them “sea dogs” for their habit of following ships. They occur near the surface in tropical or subtropical waters between 68 – 82 degrees Fahrenheit.
They are an aggressive “in your face” sort of shark, almost fearless and very opportunistic and persistent. They cruise through the ocean slowly and are active both night and day. But if they see an opening, they can quickly exploit it in a surprising burst of speed. They aren’t a critter you’d want to turn your back on.
The famed oceanographic researcher Jacques Cousteau called oceanic whitetips “the most dangerous of all sharks.”
This shark is real hazard to castaways – survivors of shipwrecks and plane crashes at sea – and has probably killed more people than great whites, bull sharks and tiger sharks all put together. If oceanic whitetips could talk, they might be able to tell you what ever happened to Amelia Earhart, and had it not happened in such cold water, oceanic whitetips would likely have been on the scene when the Titanic went down.
The shark attack files consist of recorded attacks, and since this shark lives way out in the open ocean, far away from crowds and cameras, there just aren’t any witnesses.
And back to those pilotfish: they associate with many kinds of sharks, but seem especially fond of oceanic whitetips. It is a mutually-beneficial relationship: the pilotfish gains protection from predators and feeds on left-over scraps from the shark’s meals, and the shark gains freedom from parasites the pilotfish peck off its body. The shark apparently views the pilotfish in much the same grateful manner as the lion viewed the little mouse that pulled the thorn out of his paw. The pilotfish can even act as a living toothpick, cleaning away food stuck between the shark’s teeth. It is extremely rare for a shark ever chomp on a pilotfish, and that has led to applying the color pattern of a pilotfish to the bottoms of surfboards in hopes of warding off shark attacks.
Photo credit: National Marine Fisheries Service, Southwest Region
These yellowfin tuna are probably around 3 feet long, and the one in the middle was the victim of an oceanic whitetip, who usually leave a wound somewhere between the size of a softball and a cantaloupe.
Oceanic whitetips were involved in the two of the worst shark attack incidents ever recorded, both during World War II and both involving ships that had been torpedoed.