What Are Oceanic Whitetip Sharks? – Everything You Need to Know

Your plane crashed and now you’re in the middle of the ocean. Somehow you survived the crash; you know in your mind the priority is food, shelter, drinkable water etc; at the same time, as the adrenaline fades, you feel the primal fear in your mind of the unknown in this least explored part of our planet, surrounded by another world. If you’re going to run into a shark, it’s probably when you’re near the coastline – that’s where the prey hides, and so the hunters follow. The middle of the ocean is a desert; life is spread out and sparse. Well, don’t feel safe just yet: you are in the territory of perhaps the most dangerous shark alive: the oceanic whitetip.

Where Can Oceanic Whitetip Sharks Be Found?

Oceanic whitetips sharks can be found around the world in tropical and subtropical waters. Most live between 20ºN and 20ºs, with the highest concentration between 10ºN and 10ºS.

Typically, oceanic whitetip sharks live in water over 64 F (18 C). They will wander somewhat from this range. One oceanic whitetip shark even made it to Sweden, but we don’t know if it swam there on its own or, more likely, was discarded from a fishing vessel. No other oceanic whitetip has ever been recorded so far north.

Despite their wide distribution, most of us will never encounter an oceanic whitetip, even if their population somehow explodes. Most people, other than fisherman, who encounter sharks do so while swimming or surfing or during other leisure activities close to the shore.

Oceanic whitetips tend to be found in the upper regions of the ocean, but are “pelagic” (meaning they live in the deeper parts of the ocean), and so though near the surface they roam the deeper parts of the open ocean. They seem to prefer depths up to 490 ft (150 m) but have been reported at depths up to 3550 feet (1082 m). rarely do they come close enough to shore to encounter beach-going people.

Appearance

How big are oceanic whitetip sharks?

Usually up to around 10 feet, between 100-200 pounds. The largest on record was 13 feet and heaviest was 370 pounds. In contrast to the larger great whites, another name for these predators is the “lesser white shark.”

Fins

These sharks can be distinguished by their long and rounded pectoral and dorsal fins.

Teeth

They have different teeth on the top and bottom of their mouths. Their top teeth are close together and like a typical triangular shark tooth. The lower teeth are more widely spread, longer and pointier.

Why The Oceanic Whitetip Shark Is A Good Predator

They swim slow for a shark at an average of 1.34-1.57 miles per hour (.6-.7 m/s), though powerful muscles help them to swim quickly in short bursts of speed up to 10.3 miles per hour (4.6 m/s).

Their relatively slow swimming speed may be why they prefer deeper waters; this way they can avoid competing with faster coastal sharks for food.

They are also a good predator in their adaptability: they will follow the food. We know that not only do oceanic whitetip sharks migrate, but they are highly migratory. We do not fully understand these migratory patterns, but they most likely follow after their food sources, such as tuna or squid. They also follow dolphins and whales to feed on what scraps they leave behind from their own hunting.

The oceanic whitetip shark is a good predator even if not the fastest, because:

  1. First, what it lacks in speed it makes up for in aggression. We know this because of how it chases off the faster silky sharks when competing for food.
  2. Second, since it is willing to scavenge it gets as much food as possible with the minimum expenditure of energy.
  3. Finally, this species has another advantage in that, unlike other sharks, which hunt mainly at night, the whitetip is active during both day and night – they have no set cycle of activity.

What Do Oceanic Whitetip Sharks Eat?

Oceanic whitetip sharks mostly eat cephalopods (squid, etc.) and bony fish. They don’t have a strict diet but are opportunistic and will eat when food is available. These crafty sharks follow behind whales and dolphins to scavenge any left-overs from their feeding. They are even known to follow pilot whales to eat their poop.

Other foods include:

  • Stingrays
  • Mollusks
  • Sea birds

How do they eat?

They eat whatever is easiest and slowest, scavenging when they can and hunting when necessary. Supposedly, they feed by swimming at a school of fish with their mouth open or biting into groups of fish.

How Do Oceanic Whitetip Sharks Reproduce?

They are viviparous, like humans, meaning that rather than lay eggs the female nourishes the young in a placenta. The male inserts his “clasper” into the female’s “cloaca” to mate.

We know little of their reproduction. What we’ve observed is that they seem to mate during June and July, giving birth 9-12 months later, and at least one “pupping ground” seems to be in the middle of the Pacific ocean, around 10ºN.

They grow to different ages in different regions, but on average they grow to around 20 years old.

Are Oceanic Whitetip Sharks Dangerous?

Famous oceanographer Jacques Cousteau called the oceanic whitetip shark “the most dangerous of all sharks.” Though the average beach-goer has little to fear from them, as they only very rarely venture close to shore, things change when you get on their turf. Obviously humans are not a regular part of this shark’s diet: there simply aren’t enough people floating around the open ocean to sustain a whitetip’s life. However, when a shark sees a person, they generally see an opportunity: an opportunity for food.

Oceanic whitetip sharks have brought about the tragic end to the lives of many shipwreck and plane crash survivors in the open sea. One of the most famous examples includes the sinking of the USS Indianapolis on July 30, 1945.

When Japanese torpedoes hit the vessel, there were 1,195 men on board; when it sunk, about 850 remained; 4 days later, 316 were left.

Many died from exposure; some drank the salt water and became delirious, fighting among themselves. The bodies of the dead became food for the sharks, as did anywhere from dozens to hundreds of the living.

In other words: yes, oceanic whitetip sharks are dangerous, they do eat humans, and they do attack humans. They will eat what they can find, and if you are all they find they can and will eat you. The odds of this happening are low, because you need to be near them in the water and they need to be hungry enough to eat something they are not accustomed to, but the reality is it can, does, has, and will happen.

Are Oceanic Whitetip Sharks Endangered?

Oceanic whitetip sharks are listed as critically endangered with a decreasing population by the World Conservation Union’s Redlist (IUCN). In other words, they are going extinct. We do not know how many are left in the world, but populations have dropped by over 80% in the course of 60 years.

Why are oceanic whitetips endangered?

People fish for oceanic whitetip sharks for their skin, their oil, their fins, and their meat. These sharks also often wind up as bycatch (i.e. they get caught accidentally). Oceanic whitetips also go by the name of “sea dogs,” a name they earned largely by their stubborn and inquisitive nature. When something peaks their interest, they investigate it “like a dog with a bone.” This personality trait probably lends to them being more dangerous to humans (they don’t get scared off so easily) as well as in more danger from humans (investigating nets and longlines to their own peril).

They are a nuisance to fishermen, and have been for ages. In the time of whalers, oceanic white-tip sharks would eat away at the whale carcass while it was in the water. Nowadays, these sharks follow tuna boats to feed on their catch.

Conclusion

Once overwhelmingly abundant, oceanic whitetip shark populations have dropped an insane amount in the last 50-100 years. A formerly common sight for sea-farers, once an ever-present threat and nuisance, these sharks have now become a sought after rarity to see. They are on the road to extinction and closer than ever. Perhaps this means safer oceans, and perhaps this means a more dangerous world; only time will tell.

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