To photograph multiple shark species in a single trip, you could book a plane ticket to another country. You could lug all of that expensive underwater imaging gear to another continent. A jaunt across the international date line might even be in order.
Or, you could forgo most of the travel and instead journey to a completely different planet of shark photography—Jupiter (Florida, that is).
The Florida Shark Diving Experience
The twin engines roar louder as the 29-foot V-hull boat peels out of Jupiter Inlet’s no-wake zone. Even at a cruising speed of 18 knots, I anticipate a long ride out into the open ocean—a common practice for shark photography in many parts of the world.
But as the boat’s captain, Bryce Rohrer, likes to remind me throughout my visit, Jupiter isn’t your typical shark photography destination. Owner of Florida Shark Diving for the past five years, Rohrer has come to recognize that Jupiter is a special place for interacting with sharks.
“The diversity of shark species found here is hard to find anywhere else in the world,” declares Rohrer. “Not only do we have diverse species, but we also have large numbers of many of the premier species right off shore.”
A bull and sandbar shark cruise in the waters off of Jupiter, Florida
For shark photographers, the name “Jupiter” might not carry as much cache as Guadalupe, Cocos, or Fiji’s Beqa Lagoon. But who needs long ocean crossings or multiple international flights? Right off Florida’s Atlantic coast, you can photograph more than seven species of sharks served up to shore by the Gulf Stream current.
Rohrer cuts the engines, signaling that we have officially passed the three-mile line that marks the boundary of Florida’s state waters, inside of which shark baiting for photography is illegal. But chum isn’t even needed right away: Instantly, I spot several gray silhouettes piercing the blue Floridian waters. They are bull sharks—a half dozen of them—all within sight of the ritzy condos of West Palm Beach.
As the only professional photographer on this morning trip, I am invited to slip into the water first to check things out while the other guests get fitted for fins. I follow Rohrer’s advice to stick to freediving—donning a scuba tank is cumbersome and can often scare away the skittish animals.
Sure enough, the captain is right. The bull sharks start off a bit shy, but within 20 minutes, I am surrounded by subjects fighting over pieces of bonito bait being flung into the water. The constant pop of my strobes amp up the sharks even more. Soon, sandbar and silky sharks join the fray.
Florida Shark Diving uses limited bait to ensure the best encounters for photographers
“What we try and do is take your needs as a shark photographer and then get on the water and put you in the positions to get your shots, day in and day out,” says Rohrer, who has spent more time in the water with these sharks than on dry land.
Odds are that you’ve seen footage taken from the Florida Shark Diving boat on Discovery Channel’s Shark Week, National Geographic, or NBC’s “Today Show.” The late underwater cinematographer Rob Stewart even filmed parts of the upcoming Shark Water 2 documentary with Rohrer and his crew.
“We try and customize and gear our trips towards the skill level and what the photographer wants to accomplish on their dive,” says Rohrer, who gets first-time shooters through seasoned pros on his boat. “There is no limit to what that is.”
The specific species of shark often determines the strategy to provide the best photo opportunity. During a single day, it is possible to see a huge variety of subjects: tiger, great hammerhead, bull, scalloped hammerhead, lemon, sandbar, reef, and silky sharks are all frequently seen.
Less frequently photographed sharks like the sandbar (above), bonnethead and dusky frequent the waters off of Jupiter and West Palm Beach
For each species, Rohrer and his team have developed a method to ensure the best chances for any level of underwater photographer. For example, the scalloped hammerhead, a notoriously camera-shy shark, can be enticed at first by small bait far away from the boat before becoming engaged with the larger chum crates near the divers.
“Every shark species is different, and you have to work them a certain way to maximize and capitalize on photographic and videographic opportunities,” Rohrer explains.
Unfortunately, no hammerhead luck on my two days on the water. But it’s hard to complain when I tally my total: In just two days in Jupiter, I photograph dozens of bull sharks, silky sharks, lemon sharks and sandbar sharks. Imagine what you could see in a week.
With silky sharks, bull sharks, lemon sharks and sandbar sharks, my two days in Jupiter were jam-packed
Sunshine State Shark Science
It’s a quick two-hour flight back to NYC from some of the sharkiest waters I have ever swum in. I spend the flight flicking through frames, still trying to wrap my head around the fact that this is all taking place within sight of the Florida coast.
“[In Jupiter] the Gulf Stream current comes closer to shore than anywhere else,” Dr. Stephen M. Kajiura, a shark researcher at Florida Atlantic University, offers up as an explanation.
As one of the lead researchers at Florida Atlantic University’s “Shark Lab,” Dr. Kajiura benefits heftily from the diversity and density of sharks brought provided by the proximity of the Gulf Stream. This unique stretch of Atlantic coast along south Florida provides the opportunity to collect samples of multiple types of sharks throughout the year—just offshore.
Researchers believe that the extreme proximity of the Gulf Stream to shore creates a unique environment for sharks
The coast off Jupiter also drops off quickly and features more exposed rock on the sea floor than in areas only a few miles to the south or north. Such topography is often cited as the reason behind mass shark aggregation of species like lemon and blacktip sharks.
Last year, aerial footage of tens of thousands of blacktips near West Palm Beach caused a bit of a stir in the international media. But for Dr. Kajiura, these sightings are a promising sign of a healthy population. An opportunity not to be missed, Dr. Kajiura tagged nearly 60 of these juvenile sharks to track their migration patterns.
Dr. Kajiura and his colleagues tag sharks near Jupiter to track their migration
The same proximity to the Gulf Stream that permits cutting-edge shark research also empowers shark ecotourism companies and their photography guests.
“Most of the year, we average double-digit sharks per trip with multiple species per trip,” says Rohrer, who says the summer months provide the largest number of sharks seen per trip. “Many species stay here for long time periods versus other locations that have shorter seasons.”
Dr. Kajiura appreciates Jupiter’s “sharksplosion” not only as a scientist, but as an underwater photographer as well. When not tagging sharks, the FAU faculty member can be found out with Florida Shark Diving taking snapshots with his Nikon D610 in Aquatica housing.
“[The Gulf Stream] really gives the opportunity to get great photos close to shore,” says Dr. Kajiura, noting the warmth and clarity of the conditions. “It is the underwater photographer’s dream.”
Jupiter’s clear, warm waters are ideal for photography. Here, a freediver with a GoPro films a silky shark
Shark Ecotourism’s Future in Florida
Perhaps the most promising sign for the future of shark ecotourism and conservation is the presense of non-divers on Rohrer’s boat. Some guests are interacting with sharks for the first time. A few of them haven’t even snorkeled before.
“All of these sharks are directly on the surface and often swimming right at you or around you, so you don’t need to be a professional to get great shots,” explains Rohrer, who does offer scuba diving tours, but prefers the safety and freedom offered by snorkeling.
Florida Shark Diving’s popular Instagram and Facebook pages are testaments to this statement. Guests from around the globe share their images from a day out on the water with “Captain Bryce” and company—many taken with just a compact camera or a GoPro. The images and corresponding captions from guests often convey a feeling of awe from the experience.
Whether you shoot with a GoPro (left) or DSLR (right), you are sure to come home with some killer shark photographs
Photographing sharks at the surface not only increases safety, but provides ample natural light
This enthusiasm for shark ecotourism isn’t shared by everyone in Florida. In 2016, Sen. Bill Nelson (D-Fla.) introduced a bill that would ban baited shark encounters entirely within the U.S.—a major challenge for companies like Florida Shark Diving. The legislation cited concerns of changing the animal’s natural behavior that could risk harm to humans. As of now, the bill remains unpassed.
While shark researcher Dr. Kajiura acknowledges that there are inherent risks with these types of activities, he also believes that when proper measures are taken, it can be done safely and sustainably. Dr. Kajiura praises precautions taken by companies like Florida Shark Diving, which offer controlled encounters at the surface, with the addition of safety divers, and a tag line for strong currents. “Many still have this ‘Jaws’ mentality.” laments Dr. Kajiura. “We’re still fighting this idea that the only good shark is a dead shark.”
Yet even from a purely economic standpoint, this mentality is flawed. Currently, current shark fin exports across the entire U.S. bring in just over $1 million. In 2016, the shark ecotourism business in Florida alone grew to a $221 million-per-year industry, providing nearly 4,000 jobs.
These figures come from a report produced by conservation group Oceana, released to promote support for the Shark Fin Sales Elimination Act. The legislation would outlaw all sales and purchases of shark fins in the U.S.
A bill banning baited shark encounters would challenge shark ecotourism operations like Florida Shark Diving...
However, even the most informative studies can fail to reach the same sphere of influence as visual imagery. Dr. Kajiura and the FAU Shark Lab publishes dozens of studies on the behavior and morphology of Florida’s sharks—but it is only when aerial images of thousands of aggregating sharks emerge that sharks make the headlines of local papers.
Powerful images taken and shared by guests with Florida Shark Diving and similar operators—be it by a tourist or pro photographer—can help counteract false shark narratives, Dr. Kajiura believes. “A great photo is a hook,” says Dr. Kajiura. “It gets you to the point of conversation—then you can talk about the value of shark conservation.”
Here’s hoping for many more great shark photos.
...but images showing peaceful interactions between humans and sharks are powerful tools of conservation and communication with the general public
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