Diving with sharks is an amazing experience. For a lot of divers, the easiest way to dive with sharks is to dive with Oceanic Whitetips in the Red Sea.
First, I will do a quick, facts-heavy, introduction on Oceanic Whitetips, then reflect on some of my own experiences with them and finally outline a few specific locations in the Red Sea where you have a high probability of meeting them in person.
Overall, this article will give you an idea of where, when, and how to find them as well as what to do when you’re next to them.
For more shark photos take a look at my Sharks gallery.
In December 2019, they have been upgraded from overall as Vulnerable and Critically Endangered in the Northwest and Western Central Atlantic to overall Critically Endangered.
Oceanic Whitetip Shark
Oceanic Whitetip Shark with its scientific name Carcharhinus longimanus is definitely one the most interesting wildlife species. It is the most widespread of shark species. You can encounter it in tropical and warm seas around the world. It is a medium-sized requiem shark and a typical length is around 2 meters, rarely over 3m and the biggest sizes observed are just below 4m. Females are just slightly bigger than males.
It has characteristic long rounded white tipped pectoral fins on which it actually got its scientific name since longimanus which literally translates from Latin as “long hands”. Due to the fact that most of its fins (dorsal, pectoral, pelvic, and caudal) have white tips, it is well known in a common language as Whitetip. The name Oceanic comes from the fact that they are predominately found in open oceans.
It is a slow-moving, solitary predator that cruises just below the water surface looking for prey. This allows it to cover large areas on its journey to find food. Since they live in open oceans, there is no abundance of food and they take advantage of any opportunity to eat. Jacques Cousteau described it as “the most dangerous of all sharks” due to the belief that it is responsible for many fatal shark bites on humans after ships would turn into wrecks.
Characteristic of all requiem sharks is that they are slow swimmers, but at the same time they can show off an impressive burst of speed when and if needed.
Their predatory instinct becomes dominant as the sun sets down. During the early mornings and mid-day, they’re less curious, keeping their distance from divers, but as the sun is slowly going down they find more courage to approach divers and poke them. Practically, on 06:00 dive it was hard to get them close, but at 16:00 you could have a few swimming around you showing a lot of interest in you.
The pilot fish
The pilot fish is very often following Oceanic Whitetip sharks. The reason for this get together is a mutual benefit for them or Symbiosis.
It clean parasites from the shark, while in return they get protection from other predators. The pilot fish (Naucrates ductor) is actually a specific type of trevally family and not a fish category as some might think.
It can be associated with many sharks, but Oceanics are the most famous for having it around.
In the jargon, we photographers refer to the pilot fish next to Oceanic Whitetips as “Jewellery”.
How To Act
The best way to manage your encounter with Oceanic Whitetips is to stay relatively close in a small group with other divers, but with enough space in-between to allow the sharks to swim through.
Bubbles scare all sharks in general, so try not to have a curtain of bubbles around you. Therefore, try to keep some space between divers to avoid this. One tip is to “save” some bubbles in case you want to push them back. This advice works well with other sharks and especially hammerheads.
No bubbles = Sharks might get close.
Always keep an eye on what is happening behind you. All sharks, but especially Oceanic Whitetips, have a preference and ability to un-unnoticeably get behind you. The best thing that can happen is that Oceanic Whitetip actually gets close, but you need to be in control of that encounter and you should decide how close and from where the Oceanic Whitetip will come. You can do this by carefully observing what is happening around you and positioning yourself in a favorable location toward the Oceanic Whitetip.
This will help a lot with photography since it gives you the opportunity to work on your composition and lighting and decide what is in the frame and where you decide to position the sun as the source of natural light. Sometimes they bump into your camera, but typically they pass by 20–50 cm in front of you.
I heard that some divers paint eyes on the back of the mask strap to “confuse” Oceanic Whitetips. I am not sure if this is working.
In general, having a camera on a shark dive is awesome since it acts as a sort of “cage” due to it sitting in between you and the shark itself, creating a barrier. This definitely helps with bigger and more aggressive sharks such as Bull and Tiger Sharks.
Oceanic Whitetips are attracted by bright colors so if you have yellow fins, they will for sure go for them once they become more curious, hence the expression “yum, yum yellow”. Maybe better to have dark color fins?
Hands with no gloves also present a sort of bright color patch so it is good to wear gloves for the same reasons as for wearing dark-colored fins.
Oceanic Whitetips are subject to heavy fishing, both targeted for its fin value but also as a by-catch on bigger scale fishing.
Per IUCN Red List it is assessed overall as Critically Endangered.
In 2013, Oceanics were added to Appendix II of CITES, bringing shark fishing and commerce of these species under licensing and regulation.
In December 2019, they have been upgraded from Endangered into Critically Endangered as the overall population trend is in Decline.
The species is caught globally as target and bycatch in pelagic commercial and small-scale longline, purse seine, and gillnet fisheries, and is retained for the meat and fins. The Scalloped Hammerhead has undergone steep declines in all oceans, with some signs of stabilization and possible recovery in response to management only in the Northwest Atlantic and Gulf of Mexico. The weighted global population trend estimated median reductions of 76.9–97.3%, with the highest probability of >80% reduction over three generation lengths (72.3 years), and is therefore assessed as Critically Endangered A2bd.
A sad fact is that a lot Oceanic Whitetips we have met on these trips had hooks in their mouth, which is not that nice and makes me think how actually it is amazing that they were almost killed, survived and still come to check us out … really brave.
How and where to find them
Most of my own encounters with Oceanic Whitetips were limited to the Red Sea, specifically, it’s the southern part. All encounters took place during the series of Alex Mustard’s Underwater Photography Workshops that were all about Oceanics and they were held each year in early November.
The idea for these Underwater Photography Workshops was to have a flexible liveaboard itinerary and to go where the Oceanic Whitetips were at that given moment and not lose precious time somewhere else. This is not always possible with most liveaboards but Alex worked out this, let’s call it a perk, with the agent and boat and this is one of the things that made a key ingredient for success here, in my opinion.
I was on this trip three times and each trip was a success. I heard that the first trip in this series, one that I did not attend, did not have a single encounter with Oceanics. Overall, I think we were also a bit lucky.
Trips would take place at the beginning of November since this is when there is a high probability to get some encounters with Oceanics. We would depart from Marsa Alam toward The Brother Islands since this is where typically there are a lot of them. On our way back we would visit Elphinstone Reef.
On one trip only we managed to get all the way down to Rocky and Zabargad Islands.
Marsa Alam is a town in south-eastern Egypt. It has an airport and you can just fly into it. Next to being a liveaboard port, it also offers some local based diving and is also a well-known diving destination.
Brothers Islands, The Brothers, or “El Ikhwa” are two small islands: Big Brother and Small Brother. They are located one next to each other with around 1km in between them. They are around 67 km from the mainland. This means they are reachable only by liveaboards. Next to Big Brother, there are two wrecks: Numidia and Aida. They are also one of Egypt’s Red Sea Marine Parks where. Night diving is prohibited.
On these trips, we would spend our time next to Small Brother only and never dived on any of the wrecks. But, Oceanic Whitetips would show up on the first dive. Far away, and shy at the beginning and it would take a few dives or days to get them close to us. One by one. The current is always strong but it was not blocking us from encounters, it was just a bit more demanding. The convenient part about Small Brother is that current breaks around the island, so if the liveaboard is moored in the right place (as it was) you’re pretty much sheltered in the area around the boat and this is where most of the action is happening.
In general, on all of these shark diving trips, they sometimes do not show up. Or, it takes some time. In that case, the best next option is to just hang out in the blue and wait for them. The next best option is to go to the nearby reef and focus on reef photography if there is any reef around of course.
Small Brother offers a good reef to get some nice shots. Sometimes, close to the bottom and next to the reef, different types of shark can be observed.
Elphinstone Reef is another classic location in The Red Sea to get close to Oceanic Whitetips. It is also known as Sha’ab Abu Hamra. It is located around 12 km from the coastline at Marsa Abu Dabbab and around 32 km from Port Ghalib which is next to Marsa Alam. The reef is long and very narrow and runs approximately in a north-south direction. It has very steep walls and descends down to around 40m. Its walls are covered in nice soft coral.
We would always get some encounters with Oceanic Whitetips there and would typically visit this location on our way back to Marsa Alam as one of our last locations. We would stick to the Southern Plateau and Oceanic Whitetips would hang around the boat in the direction of the open sea. The Oceanic Whitetips we saw here, especially on our last trip, were significantly larger than others previously at The Brothers so it was interesting to see something different.
Elphinstone Reef can be very busy and in such cases, and in such cases good luck with Oceanic Whitetips getting close. Late in the afternoon when just a few liveaboards are anchored there is the best time to get them close.
The north side of the reef is famous for hammerheads out in the blue and deep down but we never get there since it is too far away for the photography dive profiles we are used to.
After The Brothers, we would typically visit Daedalus Reef in order to see Hammerheads, but more about that in a separate blog post about this specific encounter.
Rocky and Zabargad Islands
Rocky and Zabargad Islands are one of Egypt’s most remote as well as southern dive locations. On only one of the trips we were lucky to proceed all the way down to Deep South and visit them. There are no standard liveaboard routes that will get you to both The Brother Islands and Rocky and Zabargad so we were extremely lucky that this happened.
These two islands are typically some of the most southern locations people visit in The Red Sea. Zabargad Island is located 80 kilometers from Berenice and is the largest of four Egypt’s Marine Parks in the south. Zabargad means topaz in Egyptian and interesting fact is that the green olivine mineral is mined here. In the past, it was mined by ancient Pharaohs and after by the Romans. It is famous for Green Sea Turtles which also hatch on the beach in August. It is also known as St. John’s Island. There are also two wrecks here: Khanka and Neptuna.
Rocky Island is the next closest island and around 5 km south-east of Zabargad Island. The name was given to the Island because of the many rocks that lie on the top of the reef that surrounds the Island. It also has a Marine Park status. Both of these islands offer amazing diving on its reefs that offer an abundance of corals. But, instead, we focused on Oceanic Whitetips only.
We just focused on Oceanic Whitetips and stayed out in the blue with maybe some time spent next to the wall. The benefit of doing this was that we accumulated a lot of time with them. Oceanic Whitetips at Rocky and Zabargad were more courageous, faster approaching and overall encounters were much more intense. It was so much easier to get many passes and work out some great images. We would end up dives with having several Oceanic Whitetips at the back of our boat and finding our way between them to get back to the surface and into the boat.
Next to Oceanic Whitetips, it was a place to meet a Tiger Shark as well. It was lurking in the distance and did not want to approach us. Some have attempted to get closer to it, but it just took off. Later we observed it next to the reef crunching on some coral while looking for the food I guess but again it was not interested in us.
If you would like to get some sort of takeaway from this story and write down some action points while getting ready for your next trip to the Red Sea, think about these things:
1. The easiest way to meet Oceanic Whitetips is on the Red Sea liveaboards running the southern route.
2. When there, you have to invest your time and dives into it and maybe hang out in the blue a lot. This can mean many boring dives, getting chilly since no swimming and tired since exposed to currents … but the reward will come in the form of amazing encounters and great photos.
3. Stay in groups and always keep the situation under the control.
4. Wear gloves and dark-colored fins.
This article is also published on Medium.