Oceanic whitetip sharks are built for cruising great distances in the world’s tropical and subtropical oceans with streamlined bodies and long pectoral fins with distinctive white-colored ends.
These pelagic sharks are generally solitary and spend almost all their time near the surface of deep water, looking, sensing, and smelling for food.
The oceanic whitetip is a curious, bold, and occasionally aggressive predator when it thinks it’s found something to eat.
Although incidents are extremely rare, the oceanic whitetip has gained the unfortunate reputation as the “shipwreck shark” due to some tragic attacks on unfortunate mariners stranded in the sea.
Let’s take a complete look at this apex predator and discover more about one of the ocean’s most perfect eating machines.
What Do Oceanic Whitetip Sharks Look Like?
The first time you see a photo of an oceanic whitetip, it’s pretty obvious where the shark gets its name.
The ends of the shark’s pectoral, dorsal, pelvic, and tail fins all have noticeable blotchy white markings that are said to resemble wind-broken waves (also known as oceanic whitecaps).
In addition to the colored fin tips as an easy identification method, the pectorals are particularly long compared to most other sharks and, along with the dorsal fin, have rounded ends rather than the more usual pointed finish.
The shark’s body varies in color from brown to gray-bronze or completely gray depending on where the shark lives and perhaps its diet. However, all individuals exhibit countershading with white-colored undersides.
The oceanic whitetip’s body shape is similar to many other medium-sized requiem sharks, albeit with a somewhat stockier or even slightly humpbacked appearance.
All in all, the oceanic whitetip is relatively easy to recognize compared to some sharks.
The other white-tipped shark, the whitetip reef shark (Triaenodon obesus), not only looks quite different but is also found in reef environments rather than, as we shall see, the open ocean.
Oceanic Whitetip Shark Taxonomy
The scientific name for the oceanic whitetip shark is Carcharhinus longimanus.
The full scientific description is as follows:
Kingdom – Animalia
Phylum – Chordata
Class – Chondrichthyes (Cartilaginous Fish)
Subclass – Elasmobranchii (Sharks, Rays, Skates, and Sawfish)
Order – Carcharhiniformes (Ground Sharks)
Family – Carcharhinidae
Genus – Carcharhinus
Species – Longimanus
Other Common Names – Lesser white shark, shipwreck shark, Brown Milbert’s sandbar shark, brown shark, nigano shark, and oceanic white-tipped whaler.
The oceanic whitetip was first described in 1831 as Carcharhinus maou by the French naturalist René Primevère Lesson. It was subsequently renamed with the accepted description of Carcharhinus longimanus in 1861 by Cuban zoologist Felipe Poey.
The chosen species name, longimanus, comes from the Latin word for “long hands” and refers to the shark’s distinctive long pectoral fins.
Oceanic Whitetip Shark Characteristics
Oceanic Whitetip Shark Size
The oceanic whitetip isn’t the biggest shark in the ocean today by any means; that title goes to the vast plankton-eating whale shark.
Other famous apex predators, like the great white and tiger shark, are also typically much longer.
However, that doesn’t mean that the oceanic white tip is a small shark. In fact, the largest specimen ever measured was an impressive 4 m (13 ft) in length, although a more usual maximum is about 3.5 m (11.5 ft).
As with many sharks, female oceanics get the largest, although only by about 10 cm (3.9 in) compared to similarly aged mature male individuals.
How Fast Can an Oceanic Whitetip Shark Swim?
Oceanic whitetip sharks are not famous for their speed. In fact, they don’t even make our top ten list of fastest sharks!
Instead, the oceanic whitetip cruises the waters of the deep sea relatively slowly, reserving energy-sapping bursts of speed, often vertically up through the water column, for attacking prey.
Scientists tagged four oceanic whitetip sharks and measured average swimming speeds of just 0.6 – 0.7 m/s. However, when food was around, there were quick bursts reaching up to 4.6 m/s.
Because oceanic whitetips can’t pump oxygenated water through their gills, they must rely on constant swimming day and night to breathe. The shark keeps its mouth open slightly as it swims to ram ventilate. Accordingly, the slow average speed of the shark is designed to maintain breathing while also saving energy.
Oceanic Whitetip Shark Teeth
While a tiger shark has teeth in its jaws that are all pretty similar, the oceanic whitetip has different types on the upper and lower levels.
The teeth in the shark’s lower jaw are small, triangular, and have a thin serrated tip. Those in the upper jaw are wider, taller, and have serrations along the complete length of the tooth’s triangular edges.
These teeth have evolved to hold prey tightly and rip lumps of flesh off to swallow. Shark tooth collectors sometimes confuse the teeth with those of the bull shark as they have a very similar appearance.
Oceanic Whitetip Shark Life Cycle
The average lifespan of the oceanic whitetip is about 25 years. The female shark reaches maturity between about six and nine years of age, when she measures around 2 m (80 in) in length.
As with many sharks, the reproductive process isn’t fully understood. However, it’s believed that the sharks can mate every two years and have an unusually long gestation period of between 10 and 12 months.
Each female can produce litters of between 1 and 14 pumps, with 6 being the average. Generally, scientists believe that the larger the female, the more pups she’ll give birth to.
Where Do Oceanic Whitetip Sharks Live?
You can find oceanic whitetip sharks in tropical and subtropical oceans worldwide.
The shark is almost always found in deep open water well offshore. Generally, they live in the first 150 meters (492 feet), so they are considered a surface-dwelling species. However, scientists have observed them diving as deep as 1,082 meters (3,549 feet).
Oceanic whitetips prefer warm water, with an apparent preference for temperatures between 20 and 28 °C (68–82 °F), although they have been observed, albeit rarely, down as low as 15 °C (59 °F).
Occasionally oceanics will venture close to shore or hang around coral islands.
However, this is typically caused by the presence of an unnatural food source, such as when livestock-carrying ships dump dead cargo near land or dive vessels chum the water.
Alternatively, an injured shark having difficulties hunting food may seek easy options in shallow waters.
Oceanic Whitetip Sharks Behavior
Oceanic whitetips are typically solitary predators. Occasionally where food is particularly abundant, they can be seen together, but they don’t appear to hunt in packs.
Most of the time, the oceanic whitetip swims on its own through the ocean, using its combination of senses to scan for potential food continually.
The shark is known to possess a particularly stubborn nature once something has attracted their attention and has been called “sea dogs,” thanks to their interest and unwillingness to give up even when chased away.
Scuba divers encountering oceanic sharks in deep water off coral islands often experience the animal circling them closer and closer as it tries to ascertain what they are.
Thankfully these investigations usually end with the shark deciding the mysterious flapping object isn’t food. However, frightening bumps or rare exploratory bites have occurred on occasion.
How Dangerous Is the Oceanic Whitetip Shark?
The adventurer Jacques Cousteau considered the oceanic whitetip “the most dangerous of all sharks.”
However, as humans are not usually present in the shark’s open ocean food chain, oceanic shark attacks are thankfully rare, and those that occur are traditionally considered accidental or provoked.
Indeed, The International Shark Attack File records the oceanic whitetip in a reasonably lowly 11th position in its ranking of species involved in confirmed unprovoked attacks.
However, throughout history, the oceanic whitetip’s reputation as the “shipwreck shark” has come from its involvement in several seafaring tragedies.
The most famous, known as “the worst shark attack in history,” was the sinking of the USS Indianapolis on the 30th of July, 1945.
Experts believe oceanic whitetips may have killed as many as 150 sailors as they swam in the water after a Japanese torpedo had sunk their ship.
It’s difficult to class this tragedy as an unprovoked attack by the shark.
The sailors were stranded in the open ocean for four days, and ultimately the sharks were sadly exhibiting natural behavior towards a food source.
In December 2010, an oceanic whitetip was held responsible for several bites on swimmers close to the shore of the Egyptian resort of Sharm el Sheikh.
Experts subsequently agreed that the shark was injured and had come into unnaturally shallow waters to try to find food.
Additionally, they believed that illegal fish feeding from the shore had been extensively taking place, attracting the shark into a situation it would typically avoid.
What Do Oceanic Whitetip Sharks Eat?
Oceanic whitetips enjoy their pick of a wide variety of food, including bony fish, squid, rays, turtles, and seabirds.
They’re not fussy eaters and will happily make a meal of the floating carcasses of whales or dolphins or any tasty marine garbage they might come across.
Smaller oceanic whitetips have even been observed stalking pods of dolphins and whales so they can scavenge for scraps of the mammal’s prey or even eat their feces.
In the vastness of the open ocean, the shark’s next meal can be a long way away, so they’ve developed exceedingly good senses.
The shark’s electrical receptors and sense of hearing and smell mean it can detect potential food far beyond its visual range.
What Hunts Oceanic Whitetip Sharks?
Oceanic whitetip sharks are apex predators at the top of the open ocean food web.
Accordingly, while other sharks may attack and eat juvenile oceanics, fit adult sharks don’t have many natural hunters.
In the wide open ocean, it would be rare for an oceanic whitetip to meet another predator, such as a great white, tiger or bull shark, or even the killer whale.
In this case, one of these may be able to use its greater size and swimming speed to make a meal of the oceanic.
Unfortunately, human activities are the leading cause of oceanic whitetip deaths.
Are Oceanic Whitetip Sharks Endangered?
Oceanic whitetip sharks are listed as being “critically endangered” on the IUCN RED List, with a dramatically decreasing population globally.
Excessive commercial fishing has meant that the shark is on the brink of extinction in many of its natural habitats.
Studies have shown that populations have declined by 99% in the Gulf of Mexico, over 70% in the northwest Atlantic, and by 90% in the Pacific Ocean.
The shark’s long fins have made them a prized target for the valuable shark fin soup market.
They are also hunted for liver oil and sport fishing and killed as bycatch in tuna and swordfish fisheries. Unfortunately, as the shark is usually found near the surface, it is often an easy target.
Thankfully some protections have been put in place, with the shark being listed as an endangered species by NOAA Fisheries in 2018 and being added in 2013 to CITES Appendix II to restrict international trade.
Oceanic whitetip sharks have evolved into one of the ocean’s most effective hunters.
This distinctive shark cruises the tropical and subtropical deep seas, never stopping in the search for its next meal.
The oceanic whitetip has gained a reputation for being dangerous, although most incidents that it’s been involved with have been sad cases of people ending up in the wrong place at the wrong time.
As the unfortunate nickname of “shipwreck shark” suggests, many deaths associated with the shark have been mariners left in the deep sea when their vessels have sunk.
Sadly the oceanic whitetip shark has become critically endangered due to massive amounts of human activity, particularly shark finning.
International protections have been put in place. However, it will take years of careful enforcement and monitoring for the shark populations to grow back to a place where they no longer face extinction.
British-born Dan has been a scuba instructor and guide in Egypt's Red Sea since 2010.
Dan loves inspiring safe, fun, and environmentally responsible diving and particularly enjoys the opportunity to dive with sharks or investigate local shipwrecks.
When not spending time underwater, Dan can usually be found biking and hiking in Sharm's desert surroundings.