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Behind the Shot: Sawfish Split at Dawn
By Grace Pempek, January 19, 2024 @ 10:00 AM (EST)

A juvenile, critically endangered smalltooth sawfish hunts in the shallows in the Florida Keys

If there is one thing I have learned in underwater photography, it is to always be ready, as you never know what the ocean will present to you—nor when. Luckily, that was the case for me when I encountered a juvenile smalltooth sawfish behind a cheap motel one holiday weekend in the Florida Keys. I knew I had to make the most of my chance encounter with this bucket-list species—truly a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity!

The sawfish saga began when I attended a close friend’s wedding in Key Largo, Florida during a holiday (Veteran’s Day) weekend. We foolishly waited until the last possible minute and ended up settling for a very humble Hampton Inn with a small beach out back. After checking in, my husband and I wandered down to the water before heading to the wedding rehearsal. We ventured down to the small swim area behind our building, maybe 50 feet wide, and both stopped dead in our tracks when we spotted a juvenile smalltooth sawfish hunting minnows in the shallows!

I couldn’t believe what we were seeing, and after heading to the car to fetch my camera rig—which fortunately I had set up for wide angle in anticipation of some diving while we were in the Keys—I tried my best to make some images. Regrettably, conditions were very challenging. I carefully waded into the shallow, murky water under the midday sun to try and capture some pictures of the skittish little sawfish. I did what I could but did not nail the shot and had to abandon the attempt to head to the wedding rehearsal.

Contorting into awkward positions photographing the little sawfish. Here you can see the scale of the fish

That little sawfish haunted me the rest of the day and into the night. Despite the beautiful wedding, all I could think about was that sawfish, so I was careful not to get “carried away” with the wedding festivities. I was frustrated I hadn’t captured the image I wanted and was hoping against hope that it would still be in the area in the morning. 

I awoke at sunrise and hurried down to the beach to check on the sawfish. As the sun crept over the mangroves, there it was! It was as if it was just waiting for me to come back and redeem myself. The little predator refused to swim into water any deeper than about a foot, which actually made it more challenging for me to capture images. I was using my Olympus PEN E-PL10 with a 14–42mm zoom lens and a wide-angle wet lens—not a setup designed for shooting over-under images!

Knowing the challenges I was facing, and accepting that I had no choice other than to capture a split shot, I knew I had to find a solution. I quite awkwardly held my camera tilted at just the right angle to avoid too much water getting behind the lens, while squatting gently next to the little animal. Its saw-like appendage was sitting right across from my ankles, as I used the dry parts of my shirt to keep the top of the dome free from water spots. It eventually let me inch in closer and closer, and I was finally able to get the frame I was pleased with, without causing too much disturbance to the animal. I was fortunate it seemed relaxed in my presence without any other beachgoers in the water. However, as more and more people came to the beach to watch the sunrise and enjoy their morning coffee, I slowly backed off the subject, not wanting to draw too much attention to this very rare and endangered animal. 

Ecstatic with my find and feeling like I finally got shots I was pleased with, I called Florida Fish and Wildlife on our drive back home. They collect data on the sightings of these animals and use the information for research. It felt amazing knowing I captured a photo of a rare species for all to appreciate, and to hopefully increase awareness surrounding the challenges facing sawfish in our modern world. Due to habitat destruction, overfishing and entanglement, these animals are critically endangered and are on the brink of extinction. It is estimated that there are only a few hundred of these amazing animals left in the wild, with the majority being in Florida. I will be forever grateful that I was blessed with this magical and very rare encounter, and I just hope my sawfish friend has the opportunity to live a long, healthy life.

This image, entitled “Smalltooth Sawfish Among the Mangroves at Dawn,” won Silver in the Over-Under category of the 2023 DPG Masters Underwater Imaging Competition (Olympus PEN E-PL10, Olympus 14–42mm f/3.5–5.6 lens at 14mm, AOI Octo housing, AOI UWL-09PRO wide-angle diopter, dual Sea&Sea YS-D3 Mark II strobes, f/13, 1/50s, ISO 250)

To see more of Grace’s work, please give her a follow on Instagram.


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