National Geographic : 2016 Aug
116 national geographic • august 2016 It is an amazing scene for two reasons: first, because the divers leave the safety of their cages to film the sharks, believed to be the first time anyone had ever tried the technique among feeding sharks. And second, because it’s a scene that might never be replicated—a marine ver- sion of the last photograph of endless bison herds roaming the North American plains. “ You couldn’t count them, there were so many,” says Valerie Taylor, one of the divers. “It will never happen again—not in your lifetime. Maybe in someone else’s, but I doubt it.” At one time oceanic whitetips were thought to have been among the most numerous pelagic (open ocean) sharks on the planet. An authori- tative 1969 book, The Natural History of Sharks, even characterized them as “possibly the most abundant large animal, large being over 100 pounds, on the face of the Earth.” Once known for besieging shipwrecks and fishing boats, they’ve now all but disappeared because of commercial fishing and the shark fin trade— with surprisingly little scientific attention and even less public concern. “ We’ve absolutely annihilated the species on a global scale,” says Demian Chapman, one of the few scientists who have studied the shark. “And yet when I say ‘oceanic whitetips,’ a lot of people have no idea what I’m talking about.” If you’ve seen Jaws, you know something of oceanic whitetips. They’re likely the predomi- nant sharks that plagued the crew of the U.S.S. Indianapolis after it was sunk by a Japanese submarine near the end of World War II—an event made infamous to recent generations by Captain Quint’s monologue about his experience as a survivor of the sinking. It’s impossible to capture the chilling effect of Quint’s speech in words—let’s just say it’s full of screaming and bleeding—but the last line sums it up: “Eleven hundred men went into the water, 316 men came out, and the sharks took the rest.” The problem with Quint’s story, though, is that while it gets the tangible facts more or less right, it badly misrepresents the crew’s expe- rience. This much is true: Of the nearly 1,200 crew members on the Indianapolis, about 900 made it into the water alive, and most of those men died in a hellish ordeal over the next five days. Only 317 survived. There were sharks— lots of them—and gruesome shark attacks. But when I asked Cleatus Lebow, 92, a soft-spoken Texan who was a crewman on the Indy, what the hardest part of his time in the water was, before I even finished my question he said, “Being thirsty. I’d have given anything for a cup of water.” What about the sharks? “You could see them swimming around sometimes, By Glenn Hodges Photographs by Brian Skerry When the documentary Blue Water, White Death hit U.S. theaters in 1971, its footage of great white sharks crashing into diving cages became instantly iconic. But the footage that stands out 45 years later is a long scene showing oceanic whitetip sharks swarming a whale carcass a hundred miles off the coast of South Africa.