These Sharks Once Ruled the Seas. Now They’re Nearly Gone.

Oceanic whitetips, famous for attacking shipwrecked sailors, have been decimated by fishing and the shark fin trade.

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.

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 version 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 authoritative 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.

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