Photo Adventure: Shooting Sharks Without a Cage
Dutch photographer Karin Brussaard captured amazing photos of free-swimming sharks in the Bahamas during a once-in-a-lifetime trip.
Spring 2006, I’m at my desk in Amsterdam surfing the ‘net when I stumble across a shark expedition in the Bahamas. The pictures are very impressive and it gets me thinking. I have always dreamed about photographing sharks and that is exactly what this trip is about! Ten minutes later I’ve booked the trip.
That night I lie awake… what have I done? I have just booked a $2,800 expedition (excluding the flights from Europe) and what will my impulsive act bring? I wonder what species of sharks I’ll meet and whether the trip will be safe. I spend the rest of the week searching the Internet for information. The main target of the expedition is spotting tiger sharks and great hammerhead sharks. Googling “tiger sharks” yields the following advice: “Never dive with tiger sharks without the protection of a cage.” Mind you, there will be no cages on this trip…
Flash forward a year and my 200-plus pounds of scuba and camera gear have safely traversed the Atlantic by air and I’m now headed for the Bahamas on the M/S Shearwater out of West Palm Beach, Florida. I’ve got a Nikon D80, underwater housings from Sea & Sea, and a pair of Sea & Sea YS100 underwater strobes. This is a once-in-a-lifetime trip, and I want to make sure I’ve got everything covered. You can’t simply pop out to the store for a new camera or even a spare battery when you are out at sea for eight straight days!
They weren’t kidding when they called the trip an “expedition.” We’re going for the experience of diving with sharks — not for the luxe accommodations. It’s a tight fit with all of the ten divers, four crew members, and scuba and photo gear on the small 65-foot vessel. It’s a night crossing and the weather is rough, and I can feel every motion of the sea. Staring at the horizon off the rear deck, I feel a bit sick. Yes, some of it is from the rough seas, but some is my own nervousness. Was it wise of me to book this trip? May be I’m just a bit tense because of a challenging week I’m about to experience, I tell myself reassuringly.
My diving experience is not the problem. I’m an instructor and have dived all over the world. For underwater photography at this level it is crucial to be an experienced diver, but most important is that you don’t panic and obey the safety rules. Your bouyancy should be in total control and diving has to be second nature, so you can concentrate 100% on your photography. Underwater photography is in many ways much more difficult than land-based photography. Colors disappear as you descend, there is less light, your are limited in time submerged, there can be strong currents, you cannot use a telephoto lens and you have to come really close to your subject to get good pictures. And remember the advice I found out about diving with Tiger sharks?
My first experiences with underwater photography began with compact cameras. Pictures are easier to frame on the LCD, and the investment isn’t nearly as steep. But when I decided that this was my passion and calling, I jumped in and learned more and more about it and purchased DSLRs and underwater casings and all that has led me here — to the Bahamas, to go free diving with big sharks.
After dealing with the formalities at the customs in West End Jim Abernathy, owner of Abernathy’s Scuba Adventures, provides us with a thorough briefing. Jim informs us how to act as a group in the presence of sharks. “Safety first” is his mantra and anyone ignoring the safety rules will receive a stern warning. A second warning will mean immediate and absolute expulsion from the trip. Our diving gear and its details and trim are not allowed to be finished in bright colors. And we are ordered to wear gloves because white hands can be mistaken for fish by sharks. A shark could “accidentally” bite a diver, we are told. We are instructed to slide cautiously into the water and immediate descend to the bottom of the sea. Leaving the water should also be done quickly as the greatest danger for the diver is on the surface. Tiger sharks often attack their prey, such as sea turtles breathing for air, on the surface. As a result of that snorkeling is not an option on this trip.
According to Abernathy most of the sharks in these waters are not dangerous to humans. The one exception being the tiger shark. Whenever a tiger shark is near it’s very important that the divers work together as a team. Divers should point the out the shark to each other so every diver can turn towards the direction of the predator. Tiger sharks will approach pretty much anything they meet and everything of their interest will be investigated with their nose. When the shark determines that the object is not edible it will simply continue on its way, Jim tells us reassuringly.
A safety precaution is therefore to hold an object between yourself and the shark at all times. Jim Abernathy provides everyone with a three foot long PVC tube. The divers who aren’t shooting photos are instructed to hold the tube vertically in front of them. Photographers can use the PVC pipe, or, of course, use their cameras to protect themselves from curious tiger sharks. Finally we receive one very important instruction: never look through the viewfinder for longer than five seconds and immediately search the area in a 360 degree angle to be absolutely sure no tiger shark is sneaking up on you. It’s all good advice, I’m sure, and again I’m wondering what I am about to do.
I’m sitting on the diving platform for my first dive and I can see lots of Caribbean reef sharks in the water beneath me. Before entering the water I have to think twice. During the dive reef sharks are circling around the divers. They’re making movements towards the bait boxes — boxes with fish remains meant to attract the sharks. I slip into the water and find myself in another world, with the reef sharks all around. I’m beginning to deal with my fears and I am actually starting to enjoy the dive.
When the third dive is about to start I’m the first diver in the water! At first I was a bit cautious but now I’m letting the sharks approach me at short range in order to make good pictures — it’s showtime! I work with the Nikkor AF-S 12-24mm f/4.0 G DX IF ED lens on my D80, which is a perfect lens for taking pictures of the sharks. Because they swim so close to me, my lens is constantly at 12mm. The biggest problem with underwater photography is that the deeper you go, the less available light and color there is. That’s why I shoot all my pictures in manual settings, with two strobes. With the strobes I can bring some light on the sharks, and that’s why I’m here.
The scent of rotting fish remains is spreading in the water and more and more sharks are attracted. The second species we get to see is the lemon shark. The lemon shark is recognizable by its yellowish to lightbrown/grey color. They look very impressive because of their crooked, snaggled teeth. They approach the divers even more close than the reef sharks and they seem to ignore the divers presence completely. Now and then I feel the lemon sharks touching my fins on their way across the divers. My confidence is growing with every encounter. And the the first tiger shark shows itself at a distance of about ten meters. I’m so awed by the five meter long (about 16 feet) creature that I seek protection behind Abernathy! The shark ignores us and graciously swims on, exactly as Abernathy predicted in the briefing.
The next day we meet more tiger sharks and, as crazy it may sound, I’m now getting used to the presence of these massive predators around me. It’s almost a common activity to dive in between a school of the second most dangerous shark species of the world. During our late afternoon dive just before sunset we spot four large tiger sharks. The divers work as a team and we make pictures in turns.
At a certain moment one of the divers is approached by a shark from behind — guess why? He didn’t see the shark because he looked through his camera too long! Abernathy takes swift, decisive action: he pushes the shark away using his camera but the shark is not amused. The shark opens its enormous mouth, grabs the camera and aggressively swims away with it. I feel very uncomfortable by the situation and again I wonder why I was so keen on making this trip. Fortunately the shark drops the camera before disappearing into the depth of the sea.
Back on board Abernathy asks whether anyone managed to make pictures of the frightening scene. “Are you crazy,” I ask the man. But that night I find out that one crazy person had indeed made those pictures and that crazy person happens to be me! We talk a lot that night about what happened and, more important, how a repeat of this scene is to be prevented. I realize more and more that we are dealing with lethal predators. I must not think lightly about it and I feel forced to sharpen my attention for the safety precautions.
The next day we dive at tiger beach. If you’re thinking sand, palm trees and tropical drinks, think again. During the whole expedition we only saw one island and that was uninhabited. Sunbathing and relaxing under palm trees is not what this trip is about at all.
Tigerbeach is a dive spot on a sandy shallow bottom. Depending on the tide we dive at a depth between three to five meters (ten to 20 feet, roughly). There are countless tiger sharks at this spot and meet Emma, a very large six meters long tiger shark. She is called the Supermodel by the crew because of her gracious movements in the water.
Between two dives Abernathy suggests we’ll go “lemon snapping.” Ten surprised guests on board stare at the captain because no one knows the meaning of the term. Turns out that the crew attracts the lemon sharks with bait towards the rear end of the boat. The sharks will snap at the bait and at that point we get the opportunity to take pictures of the wide open mouths of the sharks. To do so we have to hold our cameras half under the surface and at random make shots hoping for the best. It’s not easy to make pictures on a rocking boat with snapping sharks at the height of my feet. It’s certainly provides me with a lot of adrenalin going through my veins! But, the activity is absolutely safe according to the crew. At a certain moment I hear a loud bang and I realize that a lemon shark has bitten into the domeport of my underwater housing — perfectly safe, for sure! Fortunately the domeport is made of an acrylic material and it’s just a big scratch mark as a souvenir and the pictures I have dreamt of making on this adventure.
During the last part of the expedition we will search for the Great Hammerhead shark and the bull shark. The Great Hammerhead is a very shy animal and it will not show itself easily to us. We are heading for a place called “The End of the Map.” Again we dive at a sandy bottom but this time the seafloor is 23 meters down (about 85 feet). When we descend we immediately spot the first bull sharks. They can by recognized by their strongly muscled bodies.
And we’re told to also keep an eye out for the ever-dangerous tiger sharks. I notice a large one is swimming right towards me. I can feel my heart pounding in my throat. The shark hits the port of my camera with his nose and I make a turn following the movement of the shark. I have to make three turns with the shark stuck with its nose to my camera before the shark continues on its way — luckily away from me. Abernathy makes clear that I have acted in the right way, and I’m happy to have escaped this close encounter unharmed.
I have no time to relax a bit after this adventure because I hear someone shouting through his regulator. I think I hear “Hammerhead! Hammerhead!” When I turn around I see my first Great Hammerhead shark ever!
This shark moves in a very different way than all other sharks I have ever dived with. The movement starts in the head and the body follows. I am very impressed by this animal. I have always wanted to see Great Hammerheads and I never managed to actually see them. This moment makes me a very happy diver and an even happier photographer!
Later that day we balance behind the boat for our safety stop and three hammerheads come and take a look at me and my buddy. When holding your breath they approach you at short range but the slightest movement makes them disappear as quickly as they’ve arrived. Because the sharks swim just under the surface we need not worry about our decompression time. We dive in two groups and take turns every two hours until twilight to enjoy as much as we can of these amazing and magnificent animals. When the light fails and it becomes too dark for photographing we realize this exciting and very special expedition has come to its end.
And all I can think is: I can’t wait to get back to my computer to check out the amazing photographs from a truly once-in-a-lifetime expedition.
— For more of Brussaard’s underwater photography, visit her website, www.karinbrussaard.nl.
Editor’s Note: This first-person account of free diving with sharks aboard the M/V Shearwater was submitted for consideration to PopPhoto.com in late 2007. It was first published on the site on February 11, 2008. The author has just informed PopPhoto.com that on February 25, 2008, 49-year old diver, Markus Groh, Vienna, Austria, died after a shark bite during an M/V Shearwater Expedition similar to the one described herein. Extreme adventures and pursuits, with or without a camera, have the very real potential to lead to serious bodily harm or death. We strongly recommend using caution and good judgment before undertaking any potentially dangerous activity.