As a sea lover and ocean addict, being in the water with a great white is awesome inside or outside of a cage. In my heart, it really doesn’t matter. But as a photojournalist, the feeling is a little different. I need to be just a discrete witness of what is happening under the water in a very natural basis. Being outside of the cage gives me freedom to capture the shark in a natural condition.
I have had the opportunity to leave the cage before in the clear, calm waters of Mexico. But to ditch the cage entirely, in the cold, murky waters of South Africa’s “Shark Alley” is a totally different story.
Going Cageless—Planning, Preparation, and Prayer
I’ve been diving in Gansbaai, South Africa with great whites since 2005. But it wasn’t until last year that I received special permits in order to dive out of the cage, completely free, with these magnificent animals. I went to South Africa for assignment for the Walt Disney Company and my focus was to make images of breaching sharks. But it was photographing these apex predators below the surface that really piqued my interest.
In Shark Alley, you can dive at the bottom and have a chance to witness great whites looking for small rays to eat. The assignment focused on the breaching behavior, but I also wanted to show the sharks in context of their entire ecosystem. Working for Disney, we speak directly with children and their families; getting outside of the cage is a precious and undeniable way to prove that sharks may be predators, but they are not psychopathic man-eaters.
Several elements needed to come together to even have a chance of scuba diving with the sharks in the channel that runs between Dyer Island and Geyser Rock. This stretch of water is notoriously choppy, and we needed forgiving weather just to execute the dives. Because of El Niño, we only had one good day in the entire month of August in 2015.
Why is it necessary to have flat seas? It’s not that my durable Subal housing can’t take rolling around the tiny skiff. But the possibility of 7-knot winds and swelling seas can produce visibility of less than a foot. So, we had a 24-hour period where we could go out. But we still had to find a shark.
Ditching the Cage with South Africa’s Great Whites
Sadly, the South African population of great white sharks is at a critical level and there isn’t the abundance of individuals that we’ve seen in the past. So, when we have all of the weather elements working together we got into the water quickly and went straight to the bottom of Shark Alley.
Despite its slightly intimidating name, Shark Alley is rather shallow—just 30 feet. Since the sharks use this area to breach and hunt, the idea was to spend as little time at the surface as possible. Once underwater, the sharks come in and out of visibility like stealthy shadows.
The great whites are very complex animals and their mood may vary and change quickly. They are mainly very shy and can quickly disappear once you get in the water. As well, they are very territorial animals so understanding the shark’s body language is very important.
Photographing the Great Whites of Shark Alley
The challenges of the assignment begin even before hitting the water as my camera gets thrown around the boat in the bumpy conditions. Once in the water, it doesn’t get any easier.
There isn’t a lot of available light, despite being shallow, due to the amount of particulates in the water. As a result, using strobes is an necessary evil: They can light up a lot of backscatter if not used properly. The great whites are very sensitive to the strobe firing and can be scared off quite easily. So, I needed to wait for the very right moment, because if you fire the strobes too early the sharks will never get as close as needed for the wide-angle fisheye lens.
Back at the surface, the breaching shots proved an equally challenging task. I spent almost four months with eyes locked through viewfinder for hours in the morning and late afternoon. The pain was both in the body (specifically) and in the mind, as I needed to be ready at a moments notice with nothing happening in the hours in between. Getting in the water for the diving actually proved therapeutic for the neck pain.
Returning to Shark Alley
I fully intend to return to Shark Alley and give this amazing dive another go around in the future. There are only two things I plan to do differently. First, I’ll make sure to secure my camera in the new, rugged Subal housing. Second, I’ll be inviting the DPG editorial team.
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