Seeing the Unseen

As I snorkeled in the “Coral Garden” off of Manuelita Island today, I suddenly found myself surrounded by a school of yellow grunts, and shortly thereafter about 10 white tip reef sharks surrounded me.  These little guys aren’t very scary, and they are pretty much ever-present here on Cocos Island.  The combination of the two of them did offer some pretty great photography opportunities, and video capture so I spent about 10 minutes diving with the schools of fish and sharks, videoing their interactions.

One of these sharks is not like the other.

They began getting almost too close for comfort, as it was here a few years ago that one of these cute little white tips latched onto my foot, and a few times I had to nearly push them away or swim ‘at’ them to scare them off.  The photos came out pretty good, and being happy with my time there, I let the feeling that I urgently needed to get back to the boat which was now about 100 yards away take over and I swam straight back.  Later I would find that this was most likely an educated decision made by my subconscious.

When I got back to the ranger station I lounged around a bit before putting the CF card into the reader, and checked out the photos.  After going through nearly all of my pictures, and getting to the last 5 or so images, I came across a couple that made me stop and say to myself, “If I was a liar I could easily convice someone that white-tip was a tiger shark.”  Then I zoomed in.  A tiger shark, right there, in my photograph probably 25-30 feet behind the white tips that I was photographing.

On one hand, I’m so excited to have taken a photo of a tiger shark here on Cocos Island, yet, I didn’t even know that I had!  Upon reviewing the metadata for that image, I found that the 3 images that included the shark were taken within 3 seconds, and then as fast as it had come into the frame, it was gone.  The shark must have chased these little white tips who came to me for protection and then turned when it saw me.  In the photo, a white tip shark is almost directly below the tiger shark, and from that I’ve deduced that the shark must have been between 12 and 15 feet long.  That’s a big enough tiger shark to make most people walk on water.

I’m sure at this point that I saw the shark, I just know that I didn’t know what it was I was looking at.  I was too occupied with the little white tips that where surrounding me, and even though I looked off in his direction I was also looking at all the little white tips coming my way.  I must have assumed it was one of them.  This is why I think my subconscious told me to get back to the boat.  I’m sorry little white tips, I don’t think I’m the guy that can guard you from a monster tiger shark.  Luckily for me, I think that tiger sharks don’t deserve the reputation that they’ve earned.  Yes they have been quite dangerous to humans in the past, but I think the places that they have attacked people have offered far less fish to feed on than here on Cocos Island.   There reputation as “the garbage dumps of the ocean,” and “indiscriminate feeders” is all based on a shark that was captured near an actual garbage dump that had eaten parts of a tire and a license plate.  I don’t think they need to be feared as much as they are, but I do think they deserve complete respect, especially far from any source of help.

In my research on sharks that I’ve been doing on line, I’ve found that they are highly prized for their striped skins, and are poached not only for their fins.  Tiger sharks don’t have the advantage of being cute and cuddly, so like other sharks they are often ignored and rarely do people fight for their protection.  I’m curious to see if I can find a place where the skins are collected to aid my conservation effort, and present evidence that they are being hunted just as their land based namesake for their skin.


About Ben Horton
Highly influenced by his love of travel and adventure and his constant search for something new, his imagery is vibrant with fresh and creative energy. Raised in Bermuda, Ben Horton has spent the majority of his life traveling and seeking out new adventure. Ben is the recipient of the National Geographic Society’s first Young Explorer award for research on Cocos Island involving shark poaching. This led to becoming a photographer for National Geographic, and has allowed Ben to continue his passion for adventure. Follow Ben on Instagram

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