What is that little shark hiding under the reef that looks like its huffing and puffing you ask. That’s what we call a whitetip reef shark. As the name suggests they have white tips on their first dorsal and upper caudal fins. These little guys belong to a group of sharks we call requiem sharks which includes other species such as the lemon shark and blue shark. Compared to their cousins, whitetips are a relatively small species reaching on average a length of 1.6m. Their small slender size means that they are excellent at manoeuvring around the reef and through small caves and crevices. White tips also have another difference to most of their cousins in the requiem shark family, and that is the way they breathe. The majority of requiem sharks are what is known as ram breathers or ventilators, this means that they must be swimming constantly so that water moves across their gills allowing them to breath. Whitetips can remain stationary on the seafloor in caves and under ledges and still breath, this is because they use buccal pumping to breath. Buccal pumping involves water being pumped through the mouth and then through the gills providing the shark with oxygen. The motion of this pumping gives the appearance that the shark is huffing and puffing after a long hard swim.
You will usually be able to spot these sharks resting under ledges, in crevices or hiding in caves, it is not that common to see them out and about swimming over the reef. This is because whitetips are nocturnal so during the day they don’t do very much at all and at night is when they become active and come out to hunt tasty fish. The shark's nocturnal nature makes them kind of like doctor Jekyll and Mr Hyde. During the day they are doctor Jekyll sharks, very docile and calm. Fish are not scared of them at all and will spend the day swimming around them, annoying them and even rubbing themselves up against the sharks rough skin to scratch the parasites from their scales. When the sun goes down they transform into lively reef predators hungry for some fish. At night time all the fish scramble to hide in any little cave or crevice in the reef that they can find. The mister Hyde white tips aren’t deterred though they spend the night speeding around the reef catching whoever they can find, however octopuses and crustaceans are their favourite. Then as the sun peaks over the horizon it's back to the friendly white tips all the fish know and love.
Unlike our fishy friends, us humans have nothing to worry about when it comes to the whitetip, these guys are not considered an aggressive species towards us.
Unlike most sharks, whitetips are also considered to be quite social sharks. The can often be found resting in large groups all snuggled quite closely together, which if we're being honest, is pretty damn cute . These guys are also known to hang around in the same area for long periods of time and will even have a favourite little cave or crevice which they will continually return to during the day for their naps. So you can see these guys are actually quite similar to humans with this behaviour, they like to hang out with their friends, having sleepovers and can even be little home bodies just like us.
The sad part is that these cute little sharks are listed as near threatened by the IUCN. This classification is the direct result of human interference and activity. We don’t like to eat them as they are considered toxic due to ciguatera contamination, a result of the sharks diet, so they aren’t considered to be overfished. However as our human industries spread over and into the world's oceans, the coral reef habitats of these sharks are dwindling, which causes the same thing to happen to their numbers. As they are quite slow to reproduce and have small litter sizes it is quite difficult for this species to bounce back after a population decline.
At Wings Whitsunday Adventures we know how important all sharks are to the health of the world's oceans and we love to educate everyone on this importance and encourage them to support their protection in any way they can. We love spotting these cute little faces staring back out at us from under the reef and want our guests to come away with the same amazing and positive experiences. Join Wings Whitsunday Adventures to be invited to your very own whitetip slumber party.