On Mermaid Week Tahiti 2019 with Mermaid Kat and Ian Gray Photography, we also had the chance to encounter some amazing tiger sharks, or galeocerdo cuvier. The Hawaiians consider them sacred guardian spirits.
We went with Moorea Moana Tours and their owner, Seybald Pierrick, a world-renowned freediver that is known for his tiger shark encounters. Over two days focused on swimming with the tigers, we went to a few different locations and took turns in the water so there were only a couple of us in the water at a time, and we had to float/snorkel at the top while holding onto a rope attached to the boat. This was in part due to the current but also to let us see the tiger sharks without letting us get too close, as these sharks tended to stay on the bottom.
If you’ve kept up with my other posts about my time in Tahiti, you’ll remember that there was a shark-related incident; our tiger shark days were the next few days immediately following that incident so although safety is always at the forefront of Moorea Moana Tours, it was even more so important this trip as the tour boats were in limbo waiting to see if the government would put a halt to all shark-related excursions or just the pilot whales.
It took awhile for tiger sharks to approach, but there were so many black tip reef sharks, lemon sharks, and grey sharks, that I felt like I was in an aquarium! There were literally hundreds of sharks circling around the boat and we were in the middle of the shark column. It was awesome! All of these smaller sharks attracted the tiger sharks to come see what was going on so that we could see them. I saw two female tiger sharks on the trip.
Tiger sharks are the 5th largest existing shark, and can grow to be 5.5 meters long and weigh up to 900 kilograms. They’re called tiger sharks due to their unique striping; juvenile tiger sharks have prominent stripes that fade as the shark matures. Males mature at around 8 years old or 2.5 meters long, while females mature around 11 years or 3 meters. Tiger sharks can live to be over 40 years old. As I mentioned, the tiger sharks I was fortunate enough to see were both females. Like some other large shark species, adult tiger sharks use separate habitats for the males and females and only mix when they’re mating.
Tiger sharks have a large litter, normally around 30-35 pups, but they’ve been recorded having up to 80 pups per litter! The gestation period can last between 14-16 months. When the pups are born, they range from about 50-70 centimeters. They’ll grow quite quickly during their first year, reaching over 1.5 meters long.
They’re guided by warm waters, and stay close to the equator during winter months but extend their range as the water warms during the summer months. They’re movements are mostly food driven, and they like to show up to turtle hatching sites and albatross fledgling locations, but they are able to make long oceanic migrations. They have a wide variety of prey, which can include smaller sharks and rays, like dusky and sand tiger sharks, bony fish, and marine mammals, like bottlenose and common dolphins.
Tiger sharks are listed as near threatened on the International Union for Conservation of Nature Red List, which means it’s close to qualifying for a threatened category in the near future. Shark culling, shark finning, and fisheries are main threats to tiger sharks. Gill nets and drumlines are installed off beaches in South Africa, New Zealand, and Australia as shark culling efforts to reduce attacks on bathers and surfers. 23-73 million sharks are killed for their fins annually, and you should not support places that serve or trade shark fins or shark fin soup. Tiger sharks are sometimes caught as by-kill in tuna and swordfish longlining industries, so you should try to only eat pole or handline caught tuna so as to not support this industry. Handline fisheries can also target tiger sharks for sport and trophies, which can lead to energy depletion, lactic acid build up, and low oxygen. Sharks don’t have ribcages, so internal and external injuries are common and post release survival is not guaranteed for the shark.
Several sources, including Planet Deadly, How Stuff Works, CBS, Ultimate Topics, and Journeying the Globe, list Tiger Sharks as the 3rd most dangerous shark, but since 1580 there have only been 31 fatalities worldwide brought on by tiger sharks. If you recall, it was a tiger shark that attacked Bethany Hamilton and left her armless. There are four main reasons why bathers and surfers can fall victim to a shark attack. To a tiger shark, a bather or surfer’s erratic, struggling, movements look like the person is in distress. Poor visibility leads to limited visual references, so the shark will approach to investigate. When the person is unresponsive to the approach, it appears defenseless to the shark. If the person is alone or away from the group, they tend to be a simpler, easier target for the tiger shark.
There are a few things to keep in mind if encountering a tiger shark. Tiger sharks like to complete investigative circles, they can swim in the entire water column, from the bottom to the surface, and may approach you. Establish a confident role in the water. Do not swim away from the shark! Avoid waiving your hands around. Be aware of where the sharks are; look around. Control your space by reacting to shark investigations; if needed, put a straight arm out if you see it coming toward you. Normally this will have it change direction, but if it gets too close, push down on the snout to guide it away. Don’t swim after the sharks, as this will chase them away.