Most white shark photos depict a shark, at the surface, crashing at baits. This serves to portray the animal as a savage, dislocated from context. In this scenario, the shark comes across as a monster. The teeth leave the primary impression. The reality of white sharks, however, is something completely different. Indeed, they are proficient predators, near the apex of every ecosystem in which they are found. But, they are also curious and inquisitive but nervous and fragile; powerful and frightening but elegant and graceful. The standard photo does no justice to this complex creature. In this vein, I have spent a decade visiting two locations in the temperate South Pacific, working to capture images of white sharks properly integrated in their own world, at home on the bottom.
I had an imagine in mind. I envisioned a white shark gliding over the reef, surround by colourful fishes, completely at peace with its environment. It is one thing to have an image in mind, and another completely to bring that image to fruition. Most of the time, a concept like this comes from something you have seen. But, to capture such an image, there are inevitably a lot of moving parts that need to come together. With nature, most if not all of those parts are completely out of your control. As a result, it requires considerable patience and persistence to wait for everything to come together for a shot.
There are two principal places where such an image could be attempted. One is off Australia and the other off the southernmost island of New Zealand. The most established option is in Australia. The Fox family has been taking divers to see white sharks in and around Spencer Gulf, South Australia since the 1970s. And, for the past few decades, they have been perfecting the best and safest practices to lower a cage of divers nearly 30 meters down to see white sharks on the bottom. For some time now, the operation has been run by Andrew Fox. I took my first trip to dive with Andrew in 2009. It was there that I experienced the peaceful interactions with white sharks away from surface baits. From there, the concept for my ideal white shark photo began to develop.
Over the past decades of bottom diving in Australia, the sharks have become used to a cage on the bottom. White sharks that visit South Australia, and the Neptune Islands, are mostly of a group of animals that migrate around the South and West coastlines of Australia. Many of the same sharks are seen on an annual basis at the Neptunes. For many, it is a brief stop on a long journey. A few sharks can spend a few months at the Neptunes before moving on. The Neptunes stop is not essential or inevitable for the sharks. If there is a better feeding opportunity in the surrounding ocean, the sharks may delay their visit or skip it entirely. As they get on in years, the mature adults often seem to stop visiting the Neptunes entirely. Likely they begin a predominantly pelagic life, feeding on squid, between mating and visits to coastal nurseries to have baby white sharks. So, even the presence of white sharks at the Neptune Islands is not a given. Returning from trips across the Pacific without even seeing a white shark has been fairly common for me in recent years.
Another factor is the seasons. The underwater topography of the North Neptunes involves a sheltered bay with mostly flat, sandy bottom which is protected from winter storms. Thus, in the austral fall and winter, dives occur in this sheltered anchorage. Outside the sheltered bay, there are beautiful reefs, which are near the limit of normal diving. These areas can be reached in late spring and summer, when the weather allows. Even still, the anchor must be dropped in just the right spot to put the divers over a suitable area of rocky reef. If you can drop anchor in a good spot, the wind and tides will still move the cage to and fro as the boat moves. As such, the cage will swing on to the sweet spot for a tantalizing few moments before swinging away. In those few moment, you have to hope for the most unpredictable elements to come together: the animals.
On the bottom, white sharks are normally slow and graceful. Unlike their image from the surface, here they appear as simply the largest fish in a serene ecosystem. Each shark has an individual and relatively consistent personality. Tagging studies show that some white sharks avoid boats and people. They are present in the area around the dive site but rarely or never seen. Other sharks are curious but quickly move on, as if bored. Yet another group of sharks are more interested and motivated around the boats. For a successful bottom dive, you need sharks that are willing to approach. Many will just swim by, curious but uninvolved. More interested sharks will approach closely, sometime nudging or even biting the cage. These bites are rarely ever forceful. White sharks, lacking hands, feel using their mouths. At the base of each tooth, there are more sensory nerve endings than in our finger tips. The teeth also can flex on their roots, telling the shark how hard or soft and object is. So, the sharks will gently bump or bite the cage, in order to figure out what it is. In some cases, larger sharks will spin the cage by its bridle, push the cage over, or in rare instances, even lift it and turn it. There is little aggression in these acts. The curious sharks are trying to understand a strange object in their world.
White sharks are very curious in general. This is especially true regarding floating objects. If an object is accidentally dropped overboard and floats, a white shark will often come to explore. However, with unfamiliar objects, the white shark’s nervous nature is also apparent. One day in South Africa, a black plastic bag, likely washed off a boat, appeared near our location, floating on the surface. Sure enough, a white shark soon approached and circled. As the shark circled, a gust of wind caught the bag, causing it by blow upward like a sail. This sudden movement elicited a very visible startle response from the shark, which looked like it might die of fright. Another time I was using a pole camera at the Star Keys islands off the Chatham Islands, in New Zealand. A shark approached the boat and I swung the camera over to capture an image. The shark moved its head unexpectedly towards me and the side of the camera base brushed against the side of the sharks head, about 6 inches behind the eye. The shark startled so violently that it looked like it had been hit with a live wire of electricity. While such events can sometimes seem comical, especially in terms of a powerful apex predator, they are understandable in terms of the shark’s circumstances. The white shark is indeed a very powerful predator with fearsome weapons. However, there is no emergency medical services in the animal kingdom. If the shark is injured, it might die or be unable to capture food and starve. So, even though it is an apex predator, the white shark is nervous and cautious around objects and circumstances that it doesn’t understand.
Another barrier to an ideal photo in Australia are the silver trevaly. These fish swarm the cages in hopes of a free meal. As baiting at the islands has persisted over the years, the number of trevaly have proliferated. Nowadays, the trevaly form a near impenetrable curtain around the cage. To make matters worse, their silver scales efficiently reflect strobe light, inevitably causing blown out highlights in the images. In addition to the trevaly, there are a number of colourful and beautiful fish on the rocky reefs of South Australia that offer ideal models for the imagined image I was seeking. These include a number of species of trigger fish, locally known as leather jackets, as well as red squirrel fish, pink perch, black and white old wives, and large blue wrasse. If the cage is in the right position and a curious shark approaches, the next hope is that these colourful models take their places.
New Zealand is another option and carries its own daunting set of challenges. Shark diving began at Stewart Island, the southern most of the three main islands, around the time of my first trip to Australia. One of the pioneers of this diving was Peter Scott. Peter had made his living as a professional fisherman in New Zealand, and his love of white sharks led him to try cage diving at Stewart Island. White sharks reside in the waters all around New Zealand. The babies are mostly born in the north around Auckland. Mating likely occurs somewhere along the Otago coast in the south. Adjacent to Otago, across the Fouveax Strait, lies Stewart Island. There are several seasonal white shark aggregation sites around Stewart Island. The sharks begin arriving at Stewart Island, after migrations to a variety of South Pacific locations, in December. Their numbers pick up through the austral summer. The males arrive first, later followed by a smaller number of mature females.
The most reliable white shark dive site around Stewart Island is at Edwards Island. On the west side of the island, there is a fairly deep, white sandy bottom. On the east side, there is a relatively shallow, rocky bottom, covered in kelp, and hosting a variety of colourful cold-water fish species. The east side of Edwards Island is another fine location to attempt a bottom shot with colourful fish. The most fundamental obstacle in New Zealand is that there was no precedence or mechanism for bottom diving. The technique needed to be worked out from scratch. At first, we sank a large 4-man cage to the bottom. It worked well enough but the size of the cage made it logistically difficult. In subsequent years, we slowly worked out a system with a smaller, one-man cage and a hookah air supply.
The next problem is the cautious and nervous nature of white sharks around new objects. In the absence of baits on the bottom, it would require quite a long time for curiosity to overcome caution. This process would ultimately take a number of years. In the first few years, only the largest male shark had the confident disposition to approach the cage, and only a handful of times in a single season. And, the problem with older sharks is that while they are bolder, they have also seen it all and quickly become bored if there is no food reward. So, in the first few years, the photos were mostly of sharks at a distance. Given the novelty of photographing New Zealand white sharks from the bottom, even these distant shots felt like a significant accomplishment but they did not fit the ultimate goal.
While these years past, slowly waiting for the sharks to warm up, another unexpected problem cropped up. Shark diving is not welcomed by the locals of Stewart Island. They believe, based on personal believes and the most indirect and anecdotal evidence, that cage diving will train white sharks to associate people with food and lead to shark attacks. While there is a lot of objective reasons to believe that this is not true, these types of strong feelings can lead to action. As a result, several trips to New Zealand ended in failure when a local fisherman killed white sharks at Edwards Island in successive years. In accordance with mechanisms unknown, the killing of a white shark will cause other sharks to flee the area for a considerable time. This proved a significant barrier for a couple of years.
The technique in New Zealand was ultimately much simpler and required much more patience than bottom diving in Australia. Whereas dives in Australia take 4 divers at a time in a typical dive boat rotation, trips to the bottom in New Zealand were alone. Whereas the dives to the bottom in Australia were on tanks and as deep as nearly 30 meters, the dives in New Zealand were less than 10 meters and on a hookah system where oxygen is fed from the boat. Thus, dives in Australia were roughly 30 minutes with a significant surface interval. In New Zealand, I would spend 3-4 hours on the bottom, waiting alone in the cold. And speaking of cold, while the water in Australia usually runs 15-20 °C, the seas off of Stewart Island are a more frigid 7-10 °C. Despite the cold, there is something truly serene about sitting on the bottom in the white sharks habitat, waiting. At times, I would be visited by sharks that were never seen from the boat. These encounters could be quite short as a shark would arrive, briefly approach to assess this strange object, and leave. Often, not to be seen again. These interactions felt very organic. Just two animals meeting on the sea floor, assessing each other, and parting ways. There was never anything threatening about the encounters. Just curiosity.
In nature photography, at least in the difficult stuff, most attempts end in failure. The successes, those that make up the pretty photos, come in brief spells. Ultimately, to date, I have spent 111 days at the Neptune Islands, and 65 days at Stewart Island. Almost all of the success in Australia, regarding that idealized reef shot, came from only two days. The main successes in New Zealand finally came from one day in 2017 and two days in 2018. In the end, it’s not surprising. That’s how it works with nature photography. While it is always soul affirming to be in nature, most days do not yield quality results. And, the more difficult the goal, the more rare the victories. The successes are few but sweet. In the end, we always want more of a good thing. I would love to capture new and even better images of white sharks in the reef community. But, I am pleased with the images that I have been able to achieve. To me, they show a white shark as it should be seen. Not a monster, just a skilled but vulnerable hunter. An animal that is part of a broad community of animals living together in the ocean. Not all is hunting and killing, a lot is just being. Every day, exploring new things, and checking out familiar things. Always looking for enough food to make it through another day, another season. Meanwhile, maintaining a healthy fear of threats that could end it all. So, while in some ways the white shark is a scary creature from an alien, underwater world, in other ways it is just like us. It is a dominant predator on this planet. But, it has fears and vulnerabilities. In the end, we are all trying to meet our needs and make it through another day.