Shark "Photo of the Year" Is E-Mail Hoax

Stentor Danielson and David Braun
National Geographic News
Updated March 8, 2005
Read an interview with the photographer whose
shark photo was used in this hoax, and see his more of his shark images: target="_new">Photos and interview >>

A photograph that has been circulating on the internet showing a shark leaping out of the water to attack a helicopter, is a fake. The composite image, which claims to be National Geographic's "Photo of the Year," was spliced together from a U.S. Air Force photo taken near San Francisco's Golden Gate Bridge and a photo of a shark from South Africa.

The photo of a breaching great white shark was taken by South African photographer Charles Maxwell [see the link to his Web site at the bottom of this page]. The Air Force photo of an HH-60G Pave Hawk helicopter was taken by Lance Cheung. They were spliced together by an unknown person, and reportedly began making the rounds on e-mail in August 2001.

"I'd like to make contact with the person who did this—not to get him or her into trouble, but because it's a lot of fun and it is a good job," Maxwell said. "However, I must make clear that I would not like to see this happen to one of my photographs again. It is wrong to take images from a Web site without permission." Maxwell said he has sold quite a few photographs as a result of the attention the hoax has drawn to his work.

The e-mail containing the hoax photo says:


Although this looks like a picture taken from a Hollywood movie, it is in fact a real photo, taken near the South African coast during a military exercise by the British Navy.

It has been nominated by National Geographic as "THE photo of the year".

Other versions of the e-mail credit it to Geo, a German periodical similar to National Geographic magazine. has received hundreds of visits each day due to this photo since the latest round of the e-mail began. These visitors can be identified by their searches for such strings as "photo of the year" and "shark helicopter." E-mail inboxes have also been deluged with inquires about the photo.

Sharks jump out of the water—a behavior known as "breaching"—when they hunt seals. The shark uses an explosive surprise attack to snatch the seal before it can swim away, resulting in the shark throwing itself into the air.

Maxwell took his photo at False Bay, South Africa. Though False Bay is perhaps the best place to see sharks feeding on seals, he said, it is difficult to get to. "Anyone wanting to hire a boat to see this amazing spectacle must work through the only registered white shark operators in False Bay, Chris Fallows and Rob Lawrence of African Shark Encounters."

Maxwell said that he "cheated a bit" to get the photo. Though he has seen as many as ten breaches in a single morning, it is difficult to predict where a shark will be seen. So he towed a seal decoy made of carpet behind his boat, in order to attract a breaching shark.

Maxwell has worked with National Geographic several times. He was a production facilitator for the April 2000 white sharks story in National Geographic magazine and the television documentary made that same year. Most recently, he assisted David Doubilet and Kennedy Warne on the South Africa story in the August 2002 issue of National Geographic magazine.

For real images of flying white shark images and information about tours to see these sharks in South Africa visit the Web site at To receive information about a video of sharks breaching write to

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