Jul 052011
Reef shark - cue the Jaws music!

I went swimming in shark-infested waters – and lived to tell about it!  I was momentarily terrified when I found myself eye-to-eye with a shark during my SCUBA Diving open water test, but by the time I got to Malaysian Borneo I was seeking them out. And I found plenty!  Sipadan in the Semporna Archipelago is known for having tons of whitetip reef sharks and it didn’t disappoint. It was an incredible diving experience, and easily my favorite SCUBA dive site yet!

Whitetip Reef Shark while diving in Borneo's Semporna Archipelago, in Sipadan | Photo by Todd L Cohen

Whitetip Reef Sharks get their name from the tips of their fin – see the dorsal fin in this photo. I was this close in Borneo!

Are sharks dangerous?? This is the most common question I get when people hear my excitement about swimming with sharks.  The short answer: No. We’ve all seen the movie Jaws, but not all sharks are the same. The overwhelming majority of sharks are not dangerous (unless provoked).  These were reef sharks – people commonly refer to them as “vegetarian” sharks! Whitetip Reef sharks are curious and will swim right up to you, but aren’t often aggressive unless provoked.

Are there dangerous sharks in Borneo?  The places where I went were safe when diving safely.  Sipadan and the Semporna Archipelago is also has a reputation for having Hammer Head Sharks, but the divers I met said they hadn’t seen them in a long time.

[Note - whitetip sharks are not actually "vegetarians" - their diet is explained below]

Whitetip Reef Sharks like to hang out near the ocean floor and in caves. Their name comes from their fins, both of which are white tipped.

Whitetip Reef Shark in Borneo's Semporna Archipelago, in Sipadan | Photo by Todd L Cohen

Up close with a white tip reef shark in Borneo

“Wait, you went diving with sharks and weren’t even protected in a cage??” -

Do you need a cage to dive with sharks?  Nope. I live dangerously. Seriously with a few precautions, not all sharks are aggressive and a cage isn’t necessary for Borneo and in many other regions of the world, assuming you’re not deliberately doing stupid things (listed below). If you treat them with respect and are smart, they’re not the vicious predators you see in movies like “Jaws” -

“I would do anything … but I won’t do that” –

Are all shark species safe to dive with, without a cage?  No! I wouldn’t seek out Bull Sharks or Tiger Sharks, or the Great White, the “most feared predator on earth,” to dive with.  There are people that do, and SCUBA diving tourism is souring, but it’s all about comfort level and education. I would never want to deliberately confuse a shark as to their food – I wouldn’t dive with a group that deliberately throw dead fish and blood and in the water (called “chum” – more on “chumming” from wikipedia here), and I don’t recommend you do either.  I wouldn’t go spear fishing, as they’ll try to steal catches. Some say they also hear the sound of a spear gun and respond in seconds. I also wouldn’t recommend that you make physical contact with a shark, tease a shark, or otherwise mess with their environment. All three of are messing with the shark’s environment, and leads to accidents. Why increase your risk and make it dangerous?  Perhaps these things will change over time, but as of now this is where my comfort level is. I was just swimming and photographing in their world, and loving it!

That was my first shark sighting of the day. I'd see many more and much closer.| Reef Shark in Borneo's Semporna Archipelago

That was my first shark sighting of the day. I’d see many more and much closer

What do whitetip reef sharks eat?  If they don’t eat people…what do whitetip reef sharks eat? Whitetip Sharks hunt at night, and like to eat octopus, crabs, and lobsters, and hang out on the ocean floor near potential meals. They have a blunt snout so when they’re getting into caves, they can still snatch some lunch. They also mix into their diet some bony fish, including eels, squirrelfishes, snappers, surgeonfishes, triggerfishes, damselfishes, parrotfishes, and goatfishes.

Whitetip Reef Shark - named for the tip of the fin

Reef Sharks like to hang out on the ocean floor near potential meals

Even after seeing dozens of reef sharks in the Semporna Archipelago, it was still exciting!

Reef Sharks come in 3 varieties -

  • Whitetip Reef Shark, Triaenodon obesus (sometimes written as White Tipped Reef Sharks or White Tip Reef Shark)
  • Gray Reef Shark, Carcharhinus amblyrhynchos (also called Grey Reef Sharks)
  • Blackfin Reef Shark, Carcharhinus melanopterus (also called Blacktip Reef Sharks)
The Whitetip Reef Shark has a similar name as Oceanic Whitetip Sharks, but these are VERY different.

How big are baby sharks? Baby Whitetip Reef Sharks are 20-24 inches, after a 5-month pregnancy.

Are Whitetip Reef Sharks an endangered species?  No, but their conservation status is “near threatened.”

More on Whitetip Reef Sharks on Wikipedia.

Discovery Channel’s Shark Week typically premieres in August in the United States – check listings.

Reef shark swimming right in front of us - Sipadan Borneo Diving in Semporna Archipelago

Reef shark swims in front of us

Check out my upcoming post on Snorkeling with Whale Sharks in the Philippines – awesome!

I saw these whitetip reef sharks in Borneo, while diving in Sipadan in the Semporna Archipelago. I also saw sharks in Bali, and sharks in Thailand.

  One Response to “Swimming in Shark Infested Waters”

  1. Great article

    I think the more we can dispel fears of sharks the better.

    I do disagree however you can safely dive with tiger sharks, great whites and bulls without a cage with caveats it’s all about the conditions you dive in, your knowledge of their behaviour and your ability to stay calm in a possible anxious moment

    Also I would recommend very strongly that all black equipment is the way to go

    However we may disagree but great article

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