National Geographic : 1995 Jan
Sharks with an attitude patrol Bikini Atoll On a still, sun-dazed morn ing our speeding boat was the only sign of life on the glassy 25-mile-wide lagoon. Below, it was different. In the clear depths fish darted from clumps of coral. On the reef edge, schools of jacks and snappers drifted among coral cliffs. Lovely,yes, but I had eyes only for sharks. Gray reef sharks seemed to materialize wherever I looked. Here was an ace of predators, cruising with slow flicks of its black-edged tail (right). I had been to Bikini Lagoon in the early 1990s to photograph sunken warships. They were the unmanned targets of , t;° i. 40 'p .M ARSHALL tic S ISLANDS P.. CoA R ducted here by the United States shortly after the end of RALIA ZEALAND CAR'CIcO, atomic bomb tests con ducted here by the United States shortly after the end of World War II. Prepared for a wasteland, I had found reefs swirling with life. The marine systems, once bombarded by radiation, had been flushed by time and tides. BILL CURTSINGER, a contract photog rapher with NATIONAL GEOGRAPHIC since 1973, recently followed sea turtles (February 1994) and Hawai ian monk seals (January 1992). And with fishermen absent for 50 years, Bikini's waters had returned to a rare, undisturbed condition. I now came back to photo graph the gray reef shark, the most populous shark in these waters. It belongs to the large family of requiem sharks-the Carcharhinidae-sleek, swift creatures found throughout the tropical seas. The range of the gray reef shark, Carchar hinus amblyrhynchos, extends from the Indian Ocean east ward to Hawaii and the islands of French Polynesia. Not a ceaseless wanderer like many sharks, the gray reef shark establishes its home along a coral reef. It is a medium size shark, growing to six feet or more. It is also one of the most aggressive. What truly sets the gray reef shark apart is the incredible body language it speaks. Whenever it feels its space is being threatened, it drops its pectoral fins straight down, raises its snout, arches its back, and starts swimming with an exaggerated weaving and roll ing motion. This startling display serves as a warning for an attack. I know all about this defen sive behavior. Twenty-two years ago I was charged and bitten by a gray reef shark while snorkeling in the Caroline Islands-like Bikini, part of Micronesia. It was with some anxiety that I again confronted these powerful animals. Yet when I was done, my cameras had come as close to the gray reef shark as you are to this page.