• September 14, 2020

Playing With the Sharp End – How to Photograph Sharks

Playing With the Sharp End – How to Photograph Sharks

Playing With the Sharp End – How to Photograph Sharks 1024 680 Gavin Parsons

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.

It’s a misnomer to believe you need to travel far to photograph exotic sharks. This basking shark was photographed just off the Cornish coast.

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.

Swimming with and photographing supposed dangerous species like this tiger shark have come a long way over the last decade. 

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 was the first UK photographer to photograph free swimming tiger sharks without a cage. The sharks were attracted to the site with drums filled with fish bits, which the sharks loved to toy with. 

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.

Some sharks, like this ragged tooth, look dangerous, but aren’t and are quite predictable as to where they will be, which doesn’t make photographing them easier, but it does allow you to find them. 

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.

No shark photography article can be complete without the great white. Conditions when I have photographed them have not been particularly great though. 

I was then hooked on shark photography and travelled around the world photographing sharks wherever I could.

Low visibility makes it hard to get dramatic shots

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.

Not all sharks are illusive, dangerous or unapproachable. This is the close up of a catshark’s eye off the coast of Shetland. Catsharks are better known as dogfish, or rock salmon if you are in a fish and chip shop.

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.

Oceanic white tip sharks are very inquisitive and can put the frighteners up new divers who encounter them for the first time. 

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.

There are hundreds of shark species. Some recognisable as they are seen and photographed all the time, others, like this six gill shark are elusive and only seen at a handful of places around the world.

Photographing some sharks is easy. The bottom dwellers such as the Angelshark and Wobbegong it is just a case of being gentle and calm.

Blacktip sharks are what most people know as a shark. They are bullet shaped, agile, yet pretty docile unless you are an injured fish.

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.

Puffadder Shyshark (Haploblepharus edwardsii) a species of catshark on a shall bottom of Gordon’s Bay South Africa.

Nurse sharks are common species who, because of being nocturnal, divers are able to approach them easily during the day. 

I like to add people into my shark images as it gives context to a picture and shows not all sharks are maneaters.

This article was first published on Telephoto.com.

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