A long time ago in the far, far reaches of the Gulf of Mexico...
The contrasting bars of the pilot fish create a striking image in the cobalt blue waters just beyond the continental shelf. Swimming in unison they dart, twist and turn in natural aquatic harmony.
Suddenly, from amongst the motion a strong form emerges.
Swimming with focus and purpose, the white bars on its fins reveal the ocean’s wanderer: the ocean whitetip shark.
It continues its trajectory at a slow but determined pace. Cruising just beneath the surface, it is set to prey on anything it might encounter.
Pickings can be slim in this desolate environment.
Once considered the world’s most common large animal (over 100 pounds) they are now deemed critically endangered. This is especially true for the Gulf of Mexico.
In a 2004 study, researchers Baum and Myers noted a 99 percent decline of oceanic whitetips in the Gulf since the 1950s.
“Scientists there once considered this species a nuisance because of the prevalence around vessels. Nowadays it is rarely seen,” they noted.
In hundreds of trips in the Gulf out of Texas, Louisiana and Mississippi this writer has never seen one. And neither have dozens of veteran Gulf anglers I have interviewed.
And that concerns ocean art icon and conservationist Guy Harvey.
“The oceanic whitetip is a truly remarkable shark and due to the high demand of fins from large shark species they have declined dramatically,” Harvey said.
Currently the Guy Harvey Ocean Foundation (GHOF) and its partners are engaged in a study to track and analyze whitetip populations. They are studying the stock structure of oceanic whitetip sharks on a global scale by using genetic techniques, and migration patterns of this species in the western Atlantic with the aid of satellite tracking technologies.
Information gained on the whitetip’s movements can help create better management strategies to save the species.
When Harvey called the species “remarkable” that is not a generalized statement. He has firsthand knowledge having spent time in the water with the species and producing a documentary about their plight.
“They are bold and have no problems approaching a diver which makes for great interaction and observation,” Harvey said.
Harvey’s works with whitetips has allowed him to create stunning works of art showing the declining species in all of its glory.
Art captures the mood and feel of a natural scene better that photography and Harvey’s instantly recognizable style has resonated with an ocean-loving public in a way that connects them to wildlife.
“Things happen so fast down there and you have limited time. Painting allows to create a way to raise awareness to species that otherwise might not get much attention,” Harvey said.
The oceanic whitetip is one such creature.
If they disappeared tomorrow few anglers would notice.
Beachcombers never see these open water dwellers anyway so that only leaves wildlife journalists like myself, researchers like Harvey and his crew and a handful of shark fanatics who would even notice their demise.
But to the ocean it does matter.
An intricately woven food chain has already been disrupted and if they were to vanish forever, the balance would be upset.
And the world would lose a beautiful, cunning predator.
We should do our best to support research like GHOF are doing and all efforts to ensure shark populations not only survive but perhaps one day thrive like they did so long ago in the Gulf and beyond.
Chester Moore, Jr.