Sharks in the Dark - Cocos Islands
Whitetip reef sharks, often described as not aggressive, are probably the species of requiem shark most often encountered by divers, but the least written about. A recent nocturnal encounter with massed whitetips in the Cocos Islands has been haunting John Bantin .

Night-time at Manuelita Rock. Its dark, very dark. At what seems to be a very long way below, I see a dim green glow. I drop through emptiness, slowly circling, the beam of my lamp, powerful but blocked by the foggy conditions, picking up nothing but plankton and the occasional jellyfish. No fish are evident..
     The green glow is the light of another diver. He is hovering over a seabed of coral rubble, rocks and sand, looking at a large green turtle that he has disturbed from its slumbers. Standing on the sand it looks back, bleary-eyed, into the beam..
     I become aware that all around us are hundreds of pairs of white eyes, glinting hungrily in the darkness. A pack of wolves The sub-aquatic equivalent, these are sharks revving up for a night of frantic hunting. Something is about to die!.
     No wonder the fish are hiding. This is not a safe place for the small and vulnerable. Only a few large, evil-looking black jacks flit excitedly in and out of our torch beams. It is as if they are goading the sharks into action, in the hope of picking off some unfortunate prey that escapes the throng..
     Our lights attract other animals now. An eagle-ray almost crashes into us. Its like a cross between some demented moth and a creature from Harry Potter. More than a metre across, we get a flash of its white underbody and black top with spots. .
     It flaps its wings and vanishes back into the darkness..
     We swim slowly along at 18m. The seabed quickly clutters up with grey cigar shapes. The sharks seem to be taking advantage of our lights too. .
     Its a crazy cross between the Pied Piper and two huntsmen whipping in the hounds. But are we leading or are we being led .
     More sharks join us. They hug the bottom, checking every cluster of rocks. No hiding place goes unexamined. The seabed, lit in our joint pools of light, is now solid with grey bodies, purposefully moving as one, and with one intent. And that is the destruction of the weak and ill, and any small creature unfortunate enough to cross their path..
     How many sharks are there 50 100 200 More The occasional marble ray, not an inconsequential animal, hugs close to the sand as the horde passes over. Lobsters scuttle back into their holes. The night belongs to the sharks, white eyes glinting..
     Then it happens..
     Something reveals its vulnerability. A shark darts into a hole. Another follows. Then there is the scrum. The scrum without rules. The scrum that is a tussle of 50 animals trying to get into one small crevice, that bites and gouges and writhes desperately to deliver death. .
     This is a snake-pit of activity, a grim demonstration of unyielding determination. The mob rules..
     I hover over it with my camera. Only a couple of feet above the action, I make sure not to sink any lower. These animals are not man-eaters but at this moment will bite anything that moves, including a hand accidentally extended to steady myself on the rock below. The fight goes on..
     Remarkably, a large lobster escapes unscathed from the intended carnage and darts to an alternative hideaway. .
     I make 30 exposures, my flashguns lighting up the fray, a turmoil of thrashing tails and boiling sand. The sharks are not distracted from their mission..
     Then one shark escapes with the remains of a small red fish hanging from its mouth. It makes a dash into deeper water, and the hunt goes on. We swim on, our lamps lighting up the seabed, solid with grey cigar-shaped bodies, purposefully moving as one, and with one intent....



Whitetip reef sharks are usually seen singly or in small groups, resting on the bottom as they pump water through their gills, something few other sharks can do. With their long, slim bodies, they can be recognised easily by the large white tip on their first dorsal fin and the upper lobe of the tail.
They mature at one metre in length but can vary in size from a couple of feet to more than two metres. They are very flexible and can almost turn back on themselves and touch their tails. Their tough skins allow them to squeeze into small openings and hunt aggressively among rocks and coral.
Whitetips can be encountered in large numbers hunting at night in places such as Maya Thila in the Maldives and Sipadan Island, but nowhere can they be seen in such immense numbers as at Cocos Island in the Eastern Pacific. They eat a wide range of prey, often octopus and small molluscs. They hunt at night. Every night.