There is one golden rule drummed into every new scuba diver: ‘never hold your breath’. Now in an article about photographing sharks you may have thought I’d start with something about Jaws, but I’m not one for clichés and by far the most important way to photograph sharks successfully is to break diving’s golden rule.
Unlike the preconception levelled at sharks, they are generally shy creatures who would rather swim away than take a bite of a juicy leg. Bubbles from scuba gear scares the living daylights out of them and it took several unsuccessful years before I realised the only way to get good shots of sharks while scuba diving is either photograph a tiger shark or do not breath out.
My first really successful shark photograph was shot in Sudan at a dive site called Sanganeb. I don’t know what it’s like now, but back then it was the haunt of grey reef sharks by the dozen, but they would not come close. I stayed still and they avoided me, I swam slowly towards them and they turned and swam the other way. I spent several very unsuccessful days trying to photograph what should have been easy prey. They were, after all, everywhere.
I even knelt next to a cleaning station where the sharks came to have small fish eat parasites off them and all I got was a disgruntled shark swim at me menacingly until I moved. Back onboard the boat that evening I watched a documentary about a National Geographic photographer who was also trying unsuccessfully to photograph sharks and he used a diffuser to reduce the power of his scuba exhaust. It was one of those light bulb moments. My problem wasn’t me it was what I expelled into the water.
As an experienced diver it is second nature not to hold my breath. The reason is to stop your lungs exploding when you ascend through the water. As pressure increases so does volume and so if you come up and hold your breath you die from expanding air in your lungs. I though had a sandy seabed to kneel on. I wasn’t going up or down. I was staying still. So that’s what I did the next day. I stayed on the seabed and when I saw a shark heading my way I held my breath. And it worked. The shark swam right by me. I was amazed and forgot to take any pictures. But I did for the next shark, and the next.
I was then hooked on shark photography and travelled around the world photographing sharks wherever I could.
I have photographed Grey Reef Sharks in the Indian Ocean, Atlantic Ocean (where they are called Caribbean Reef Sharks). I have photographed Bull Sharks, Black Tips, White Tips, Oceanic White Tips, Wobbegong Sharks, Cat Sharks (known as Dogfish), Ragged Toothed Sharks, Six Gilled Sharks, Whale Sharks, Basking Sharks, Great White Sharks and Tiger Sharks. My favourite are Tigers. They are better than Great Whites by a country mile. Great Whites are brutish, whereas Tigers are cunning and deceitful.
Most recently I have photographed blue sharks off the coast of Cornwall. The UK isn’t known for its shark populations. Up until fairly recently the only shark worth considering in UK waters was the large basking shark, but in summer our offshore waters are visited by the nomadic blues.
Like the grey reefs they are skittish and best approached with snorkelling gear where you have no exhaust. Unlike the grey reefs though, as opportunist hunters, they are inquisitive of everything, me included. They approach directly knowing they want to see what you are which can be a little unnerving, but it is an incredible privilege to get so close to a wild predator. The only terrestrial animal you could compare it to is running around with a wild wolf and I don’t recommend you try that.
Photographing some sharks is easy. The bottom dwellers such as the Angelshark and Wobbegong it is just a case of being gentle and calm.
Free swimming sharks takes stealth and cunning to get so close. Imagine trying to photograph a brown bear with a 20mm lens, that’s shark photography in open water. It is a humbling and awesome experience and I am so glad I got to do it so often in my career.
This article was first published on Telephoto.com.
Gavin Parsons studied photography at Huntingdonshire college one of the most eminent stepping-stones into commercial photography in the 1990s. His career skewed into journalism when he accepted the role of technical writer on Practical Photography magazine and then slid into the water and he became one of the UK’s top underwater photographers and was the editor of Sport Diver magazine.
Gavin is an award winning wildlife photographer, accomplished environmental portrait photographer and now a Youtuber with a growing channel dedicated to all things photographic.