Swimming in Shark Infested Waters

Swimming in Shark Infested Waters

I went swimming in shark infested waters – and lived to tell about it!

Swimming in Shark Infested Waters – SCUBA Diving with sharks, no cage

We went SCUBA diving in the Semporna Archipelago, and sharks were everywhere!  This was only my second time seeing whitetip reef sharks while SCUBA diving so I was still getting comfortable with the idea of it. Eventually I got really excited to see (and photograph sharks – we saw a dozens of sharks per dive!

I’ve received tons of questions about diving with sharks, so I’ll tell you about it here. I’ll also attempt to dispel some myths about sharks.

Whitetip Reef shark - white on the tip of his fin. Swimming in shark infested waters
These majestic creatures 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.  Sharks are not inherently dangerous to people.

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!

They’re just as scared of us, as we’re the same size as them.

Are reef sharks dangerous?

Whitetip Reef sharks are curious. They’ll swim right up to you, and fortunately aren’t typically aggressive unless provoked.

Are dangerous sharks in Borneo?

When you dive safely and don’t provoke sharks, it’s safe. The places where I went are safe when diving safely.  Sipadan and the Semporna Archipelago also have a reputation for having Hammer Head Sharks, but the divers I met said they hadn’t seen them in a long time.

[Note – unlike what my dive master told me, whitetip reef sharks are not actually “vegetarians” – their diet is explained below]

Reef Shark infested waters in Semporna Archipelago Borneo Diving

Why are they called Whitetip Reef Sharks?

Whitetip Reef Sharks get their name from their fins, both of which are white tipped.  Whitetip Reef Sharks can be found swimming alongside us and the other fish. They also like to hang out near the ocean floor and in caves.

Up close with a whitetip reef shark in Borneo. shark infested waters were safe. I went swimming in shark infested waters, and lived to tell about it!
holy sh*t! That’s a shark! 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 in “shark infested waters” ?  

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 go diving 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 (including some in the comments below), and SCUBA diving tourism is souring, but it’s all about comfort level and education.

Here’s what I do NOT recommend:
  • You don’t want to deliberately confuse a shark as to their food. I wouldn’t dive with a group that deliberately throws dead fish and blood 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 and maybe get curious. 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 these are messing with the shark’s environment, and leads to accidents. Why increase your risk and make it dangerous?

Perhaps I’ll feel differently over time. I doubt it As of now this is where my comfort level is. I was just swimming and photographing in their world, and loving it!

How close did you get? 

first shark sighting. I was swimming in "shark infested waters"
This 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, triggerfish, damselfishes, parrotfishes, and goatfishes. Yum!

Scuba diving swimming with shark on the ocean floor
whitetip reef sharks often like to hang out near the ocean floor

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.

reef shark! these shark infested waters

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.” Fisherman hunt them for their fins, to make “shark fin soup.”

Visibility was poor, but I was still able to see this shark right in front of me
Visibility was poor, but I was still able to see this shark right in front of me

Where were these shark infested waters photos from? 

Sipadan is easily my favorite SCUBA dive site yet! Sipadan is located in the Semporna Archipelago in Borneo. I was momentarily terrified when I found myself eye-to-eye with a shark during my SCUBA Diving open water test, in Bali Indonesia, but by the time I got to Malaysian Borneo I was seeking them out. I found plenty!  The Semporna Archipelago is known for having tons of whitetip reef sharks and it didn’t disappoint.

when I finished clearing my mask, look what appeared
when I finished clearing my mask, look what appeared

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

If you’re thinking about getting open water Padi certified for scuba diving, I’ve put together what you need to know here.

These weren’t largest sharks I was in the water with – I also went Snorkeling with Whale Sharks in the Philippines – awesome!

I also saw sharks in Bali, and sharks in Thailand and will post about those soon too.

What has your experience been? Have you ever gone swimming in shark infested waters, without a cage?

4 thoughts on “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

  2. Hi Bill, thanks for kind words! I still think *most* people shouldn’t dive with tiger sharks or bull sharks, until they’re a bit more experienced and skilled. It’s all about your comfort level. Why does black equipment help?

  3. We loved snorkeling with sharks in Hawaii, no cage! It was more peaceful than anything. I did not feel like my life was in danger at all. They seemed to care less that we were even there. We did have a guide, but still the hardest part was jumping in the water when they were circling the boat. I would do it again. I wish there would’ve been more, we only had 3 or 4 close to us.

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