Photographing Africa's "Flying Sharks" (Part Two)
Ryan Mitchell and David Braun
National Geographic News
|Updated July 26, 2004|
<< Back to Part One
What tips would you give amateur divers and underwater photographers who want to make photographs or video of sharks?
Learn to walk before you run. If you live near the coast, try to find a small local shallow-water species that will allow you to get close and take a few images of it.
You will learn about the comfort zone of these animals, how different angles affect your lighting, how patience is really important, and at the same time build up fitness and experience for those red-hot days in clear water when the great hammerhead pays you a visit.
Do not be afraid to burn film if the opportunity arises, and when you get the film developed, pay attention to mistakes or success and try to improve each time you dive.
Also invest in the best possible equipment that you can afford if you are wanting to take your photography seriously. Good gear can go a long way to helping catch special moments, especially in low light or with fast-moving subjects.
When you are feeling comfortable to make that trip to your dream destination to film your ultimate shark, make sure that you choose an operator that understands your needs, has experience working with your chosen subjects, and is respectful of the animal you are wishing to see. Also make sure that the operator explains to you the best time to see the sharks, as many species are highly seasonal, and that you book accordingly.
How have you learned to understand shark behavior? Can you tell when you are in potential trouble and need to back off?
The first thing you need to learn is respect. You are in their world and must play by their rules.
One of the greatest things that you learn is that sharks all have unique personalities. We see many of the same great whites each year, and every year they display the same personality traits. Some of the sharks we encounter have been seen over 60 times by us, and we have really come to love these locals and anxiously await their return each year.
Many of them get given names such as Rasta, a 4-meter [13-foot] female that I first saw in 1997 as a 2.5-meter [8-foot] baby. She is loved by all, as her relaxed behavior around the boat and her spy-hopping antics make her difficult not to be emotional about.
When one is in the water with sharks, they are able to pick up on a person's degree of comfort, and confidence is key when interacting with large, highly predatory sharks.
I have found eye contact to be very important, especially with very visual predators such as great whites, makos, hammerheads, and others. They are definitely aware when you can see them and are less likely to invade your space when they know they have been seen.
Rapid swimming, particularly away from sharks such as makos, attracts them immediately, much the same way as running from a lion. If this happens, the best way to change their behavior is to drop your legs so that you are in a vertical orientation, face them, and if need be, slowly swim towards them. No predator, terrestrial or marine, is used to having its prey swim or walk towards it.
Potential trouble usually arises as a result of your own actions, such as swimming in strong currents, dirty water, or rough seas where your movement or sight is inhibited.
Do not touch sharks, especially by grabbing onto their tails. Most species really react negatively to this. If you have to push away a shark by using a pole or camera, try to aim your push at the region a fair distance behind the eye and above the gills. This is a solid area and won't seriously hurt the shark.
If you continue to push this area it will alter the shark's head position and thus its movement will change away from you. Try not to make sharp lunges at the shark as this can at times have the effect of retaliation, especially with reef sharks of various species.
Sharks will often let you know when you are upsetting them. Sometimes this can be really subtle, such as a slight repetitive gape, in the case of makos, other times a rigorous head shake, in the case of smooth hammerheads. The well-known displays of reef sharkswith dropped pectoral fins, arched backs, and irregular swimmingare sure indicators that your presence is no longer welcome.
If you are diving in a baited situation, sharks sometimes do not want you too close to the bait and will in these cases gape at you and drop pectoral fins.
Sharks of different species react differently around each other and even react differently in different regions. When you are doing an open-water dive and watching a shark in front of you, always look out for signs such as sudden pace changes or banking to one side, which often indicate the presence of another shark.
Sharks are more often than not able to pick up others of their own kind long before we are. You never know exactly what is going through a shark's mind, but by always trying to learn from each interaction you have with these animals as well as speaking to people who have been involved with sharks in some or other way for a long time, you may get a better insight into the subtle nuances that make them so fascinating to be with underwater.
You have made a particular study of breaching behavior in sharks. Tell us more about this, why and when it occurs.
A breaching great white shark is surely one of nature's greatest spectacles. You cannot but be impressed by the sheer athleticism of this magnificent superpredator as it appears to effortlessly launch itself skywards.
The first time I saw a breaching great white shark was in fact the first exploratory trip we ever made to Seal Island in 1995. As a typical student I had no money and all I could afford was a ten-foot [three-meter] inflatable boat with a 25-horsepower engine.
When we arrived at Seal Island I decided to tow a yellow life jacket behind the boat to see if a shark would come up and follow it, as I had seen at [nearby] Dyer Island many years before. I was dumbstruck when not only did a shark investigate it, but it launched itself 5 feet [1.5 meters] clear of the water in the process.
This was the beginning of my ongoing love affair with these "flying" white sharks. Over the years we have seen thousands of breachesnatural breaches, predatory breaches, or decoy breaches which we now try to keep to a minimum to prevent energy wastage.
The reason we believe Seal Island is the perfect spot for this behavior is that the natural prey items are young Cape fur seals, 15 to 30 kilograms [33 to 66 pounds] in weight, making them easy to strike without hurting the shark on contact. The sharks are usually 3 to 3.8 meters [12.5 feet] in length, which makes them very agile teenage sharks not yet carrying the tremendous bulk of the adults, even though we do occasionally see the 4- to 5-meter [13- to 16-foot] sharks jump.
The water surrounding the departure point for the seals is deep, which means the seals come off a shallow area and head directly over a deep area where the sharks can stalk them undetected.
The sharks then strike in a rapid upward trajectory with speeds often exceeding 25 miles an hour [40 kilometers an hour]. Added to this, the seals are fast and need to be attacked in the first contact otherwise the favor swings their way.
It is thus the rapid surface rush and consequent inertia that sends the sharks flying out of the water, often with a seal firmly clamped between their jaws. Many of the other white shark sites around the world have similar topography. However, the prey or shark size is different, and no other area is exactly the same as Seal Island.
The best time to see this breaching behavior is from May to October each year, when the white sharks are at Seal Island to hunt.
How high have you seen a shark jump out of water?
The highest I have ever seen a white shark jump out of the water is about eight to ten feet [two and a half to three meters] clear of the water. Occasionally you will be looking vacantly out across the ocean and one of the sharks of Seal Island will suddenly take to the air, leaving you and your guests speechless as to how such a huge animal can jump so high.
We have on many occasions also seen makos go a lot higher than white sharks, and it is an amazing sight to see a cartwheeling mako in action. Many other species of sharks jump on a regular basis, such as threshers, copper sharks, spinner sharks, and salmon sharks. A breach usually lasts less than one second, so if you are looking in the wrong place, all you get to see is a big splash and a lot of hollering from those who did see it.
Tell us about the scariest moments you have had with sharks.
The biggest worry for us at Seal Island is that a shark is going to jump in the boat by accident. Three years ago we were observing a natural predation, when suddenly the seal changed direction and headed straight for my colleague's boat. The seal then tried to jump on the boat, closely followed by the shark, which bit into the side of the boat causing it to lurch. Fortunately, shark, seal, and boat were unhurt.
In 1994 I had a 3.2-meter (10.5-foot) great white get in a one-man shark cage with me at Dyer Island. The shark had broken its way through the bars of the cage and, having no reverse gear, could only go forwards and deeper into the cage. The shark had not been wanting to eat me but had made a simple error in judgment and got its nose stuck in the port of the cage.
After several attempts I finally managed to lift its head to the opposite side of the cage where it eventually forced its way out, pretty much destroying the cage. This episode lasted about one minute, and once again, other than an incredible adrenaline rush for both myself and the poor shark, no damage was done.
We always have tremendous respect for the sharks and what they are capable of. However, some of the appeal of working with these and other predators comes from the fact that they are so capable and potentially dangerous.
It may not be everybody's cup of tea, but we love everything about it.
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