Bull sharks fill the entire frame on a shark dive in Fiji
Though the bull shark (Carcharhinus leucas) has a reputation as one of the most aggressive and dangerous of all shark species, underwater photographers regularly encounter these sharks without incident, resulting in special images and an experience they will never forget. Reaching a maximum length of around 12 feet and weighing up to 700lbs, bull sharks are versatile and opportunistic feeders with a diet similar in diversity to the tiger shark. Their favorite food includes bony fishes and other elasmobranchs, particularly young sharks and rays in inshore nursery grounds, although they will also consume sea turtles, birds, dolphins, crustaceans, whale offal and even terrestrial mammals if given the opportunity.
Smaller bull sharks are sometimes mistaken for Caribbean reef or gray reef sharks, but mature adults are easy to identify thanks to their small eyes, blunt snout and impressive girth. Like many large predatory sharks, they take years to become sexually mature and give birth to small litters of pups, making them particularly vulnerable to overfishing, and they are currently classified as “Near Threatened” on the IUCN Red List of Threatened Species.
Shooting vertically can add a different perspective and is perfect for magazine work
Because of its size, abundant distribution and preference for shallow water near populated areas, bull sharks pose more of a threat to humans than any other shark. They are also one of the few cartilaginous fish able to survive in freshwater lakes and rivers, bringing them into even closer contact with people. Most incidents occur in low visibility, close to the coastline, and it is likely that many recorded attacks by unidentified sharks can be attributed to this species. That being said, diving with bull sharks is statistically extremely safe, and there are a number of well-known dive companies that conduct dedicated shark dives with these animals.
A big bull sharks shows off its impressive rows of teeth and jaws
Watching the sharks go by at the Shark Reef Marine Reserve, Fiji
Where to Dive with Bulls
It is possible to find bull sharks at some of the world’s most popular dive destinations, including Thailand, South Africa, The Bahamas, Costa Rica, and the Maldives, and if you are lucky you can even see them hunting spawning fish aggregations in Palau or swimming among large schools of fish in Cabo Pulmo, Mexico. Divers who disagree with baiting wildlife will prefer these destinations, as the encounters happen naturally, but the sharks normally keep their distance, making photography more difficult.
The best way to get close to bull sharks—or any other large shark for that matter—is to join a baited shark dive in Florida, Mexico or Fiji. Like any other activity, diving with sharks is much safer if you join a responsible operator that knows what they are doing. My top recommendations are Phantom Divers in Playa del Carmen and Beqa Adventure Divers in Fiji. Both of these companies put safety first and perhaps more importantly use the activity to study and learn more about the sharks, resulting in groundbreaking scientific research that directly contributes to their conservation. Beqa Adventure Divers have also worked closely with the Government of Fiji to have their dive site and its surrounding area designated as a protected marine park, named the Shark Reef Marine Reserve, resulting in the first privately managed marine park that acts as a model for sustainable and efficient ecotourism for others to follow.
Shooting away from the group results in a nice blue background full of sharks
Get closer to the action for close-up images of sharks feeding—a diver for scale
Sometimes, large groups of sharks appear at Shark Reef, and it is not uncommon to see up to 50 different large mature bull sharks on one dive! Having taken part in this activity many times, I will say that there is nothing that can compare to being surrounded by so many huge sharks at one time—justifying its claim as the best the shark dive in the world. Playa del Carmen comes a close second, for me, providing equally close encounters with smaller groups of female sharks that appear annually between November and March. Both of these dives are for advanced certified divers due to the depth of the sites and the possibility of strong currents, but you are guaranteed to get close enough to the sharks to touch them, and that means coming away with some epic wide-angle shark shots.
Finally, you can also take part in baited drift dives with bull sharks in Florida, where the sharks often come closer to the surface to meet the shark wrangler with the food. I have seen some awesome images captured there in clear blue water, but be advised that these dives can be high octane drifts far from shore and do not adhere to the same strict safety protocols you will be made to follow in other places. All sharks are ambush predators and are far more likely to approach divers when they are distracted or not looking, and bull sharks are by far the most sneaky in this regard. Look them in the eye and they will keep their distance, but turn away and they will approach you quickly and without hesitation. There is a saying in shark diving circles: “Keep your head on a swivel”—and this definitely applies to dives in open water with this species.
In open water, it is easier to capture an individual animal as it passes by in the blue
Photography Tips and Insider Advice
As we have already discussed, there are two different ways to encounter bull sharks—with or without using bait—and each activity produces different results. For either situation, a wide-angle zoom lens works best, giving you the flexibility to change the focal length depending on how close you can get to the subject. You will also need two powerful strobes suitable for wide-angle photography to properly light the scene. Start with your aperture settings at around f/8 or f/9 and your shutter speed at 1/125s, and adjust from there.
If you are lucky enough to see a bull shark on a regular dive, stay calm and move slowly, and the shark will normally keep its distance and swim calmly around the dive site, providing the perfect opportunity to capture scenic wide-angle shots featuring sharks and other fish. Increase your aperture to make sure the corners are sharp and worry less about the shutter speed as the action will be slow enough to leave it where you started (at 1/125s). Try to frame the reef and its inhabitants from a variety of angles and make the most of the time you have, as there is no guarantee the sharks will stay around for long or get close enough to get a decent shot.
Plenty of other fish are also attracted to the shark diving site too
At certain times of the year you can see more than 50 sharks on one dive!
Baited shark dives are more predictable and reliable, but you will normally have less scope for experimentation. If the operator is acting responsibly, you will be closely monitored with the rest of the group and told to stay in one position on the reef or in the sand for the duration of the dive. This makes the activity much more sustainable and safe but does mean you can be a little restricted in the types of images you can capture from your designated position.
The action is often fast paced with many sharks competing for a snack, so in this instance increase the shutter speed to around 1/250s to make sure your images are sharp and leave the aperture at f/8 as corner sharpness will not be as much of an issue. Most of the time, bull shark encounters happen in relatively deep water with less than ideal amounts of natural light, so utilize your camera’s ISO and turn the strobe power up if the results on your screen look underexposed.
When the action picks up, it is tempting to fire away in burst mode to capture multiple images of each pass, and if you insist on shooting this way, make sure your strobes can keep up with the action. Most strobes will struggle to do this at anything above half power, so I find it better to use the viewfinder and shoot more selectively during the peak of the action. You will have fewer shots to choose from at the end, but they should all be properly lit and in focus.
A big bull flexes its jaws while swallowing the bait
Also, remember that strobe position varies a lot depending on the subject’s distance from the camera, so keeping your flash guns in one position for the entire dive won’t always work. Be ready to pull them in next to the dome port if the sharks are coming close enough and get them out nice and wide for reef scenes and portraits taken from a distance. Of course, it is not always easy to constantly play with strobe positioning during a dive—especially a dive when you are surrounded by big sharks—so I have a tried-and-tested way to make things easier that can help. Speak to your dive guide before you enter the water and request to be positioned in different locations on each dive. In the middle of the group, you will normally be closer to the feeder and the action so you can keep the strobes tucked in and capture action shots of the activity. The alternative is to request the very end spot in the lineup, so that you can shoot out into open water away from the group without divers and other things cluttering the frame. Here, you can get the strobes out wide and turn the power up as the sharks will be further away.
If you can, try to take part in multiple dives at the same site, as conditions and shark activity will vary each day. Most importantly, pay close attention to the rules and never put yourself (or anyone else) at risk for a photo. By acting responsibly and supporting sustainable shark tourism, you can contribute to shark conservation while capturing amazing shark images to add to your portfolio.
To get close-ups like this, you need to be close to the feeding station and be ready for action
Bull sharks are expert ambush predators and often sneak up on you when you’re not looking…
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