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Dive Photo Guide


Photographing Great Hammerheads
By Daniel Norwood, August 23, 2020 @ 08:00 AM (EST)

The shape of the great hammerhead’s cephalafoil is what makes it so recognizable and unique

The great hammerhead (Sphyrna mokarran) is one of the most unique and easily recognizable of all shark species. It has a large T-shaped head, called a cephalofoil, which resembles a hammer and gives the species its common name. 

The snout of the shark is covered in visible black pores named ampullae of Lorenzini, which are used to scan the seabed and detect the electrical impulses of its prey. The cephalofoil also serves as a hydrofoil that allows the shark to turn quickly when hunting and is sometimes used to hit its target, and stun it, before taking the first bite. As the name would suggest, great hammerheads are big sharks, with mature adults reaching more than sixteen feet (five meters) in length, and with its large head and tall dorsal fin, one can easily distinguish this species from its smaller hammerhead cousins. 

The great hammerhead is a nomadic predator with a preference for rays and skates. Venomous spines of stingrays are often found lodged inside the mouth of captured individuals, but this does not seem to prevent these sharks from routinely targeting this type of prey. They will also consume invertebrates such as crabs, lobsters, squid and octopuses, bony fish, and other sharks.

A great hammerhead swims close to the sand in search of stingrays, its favorite prey


Where to Get Hammered

Although widely distributed in tropical and warm waters, the great hammerhead normally avoids interaction with humans, and until recently, images and sightings of the species were sporadic and rare. This all changed a few years ago when a provisioning site was established in Bimini, in the Bahamas, which quickly became famous for its reliable—and close—encounters with this otherwise elusive shark.

Bimini is also home to the world’s most well-known shark research center, and staff at the Bimini Biological Field Station, and dive operators who began the feeding activity, report that it took years before the hammerheads were confident enough to approach divers regularly. The good news is that now the sharks have been conditioned, it seems they are there to stay! Every year between the months of December and March, hundreds of people visit the island to take part in this special dive, and for underwater photographers it provides a unique opportunity to capture special images of an iconic shark species to add to their big animal portfolio.

Another location in the Bahamas where you might see this species is at Tiger Beach. Besides the tiger sharks that give this world-famous dive site its name, great hammerheads have also started to frequent the area, providing divers the opportunity to see two top apex predators at the same time. Depending on the season, shark diving operators in Florida also sometimes encounter great hammerheads, and while not as reliable or popular as the shark dive in the Bahamas, it is probably the only other location where you stand a good chance of getting close to this shark.

Four hammerheads in one frame in Bimini, Bahamas

Converting to back and white and using creative techniques results in a different perspective


Dive Practices and Procedures

The site in Bimini where the hammerheads are found is shallow—approximately 50 feet (15 meters)—allowing for long bottom times and multiple dives. Like most other baited shark dives, an experienced divemaster will carry a box of bait that is used to attract and feed the sharks, and the activity takes place in a flat sandy area away from the reef.

For safety reasons, you will be required to form a line with your fellow divers and stay in the same position for the entirety of the dive. From your spot in the lineup, you simply sit and watch the action unfold in front of you as the sharks approach the feeder one at a time for a snack. 

Although the hammerheads may be a bit intimidating at first, they are quite predictable and relaxed around divers, making it an ideal activity for beginners or those with little shark diving experience. Just remember to follow the rules at all times, and pay close attention to your surroundings and air supply as it’s easy to get distracted when surrounded by giant sharks.

Entering the water first often results in one-on-one encounters with the sharks

Most operators will do a two-tank dive trip, but the dives are long, and the sharks normally hang around for the entire day, so you will have plenty of time to get comfortable and enjoy the experience. Photographers will be in their element, as you are almost guaranteed close encounters during these dives and should come away with some epic images—providing you have a wide enough lens to capture all the action. 

One thing to consider when diving in the Bahamas is bad weather. Many people assume that because it is a Caribbean destination then every day is calm and sunny but, in my experience, that is really not the case. Strong wind sometimes prevents boats from going out for days at a time and the water visibility isn’t always perfect either. If you really want to make the most out of your trip, allow at least three or four days diving this site so you can see it at its very best.

If you are hoping to see hammerheads in Florida, it will likely be a very different experience. Shark diving there is done further offshore, in much deeper water, and you will need to be an advanced diver who knows how to handle strong currents to join one of these trips. The sharks may appear out of nowhere while you are drifting in the blue, and you will also encounter other species such as bull sharks, lemons and tiger sharks. 

The huge dorsal fin of the great hammer makes it easily identifiable from any angle


Photography Tips and Techniques

The great hammerhead is one of the most photogenic of all sharks, and it is relatively easy to capture great images of them when you join a shark dive in one of the awesome destinations mentioned above. That being said, there are still some things you can do to make the most of every dive and be more productive.

The first thing you will need, of course, is a wide-angle lens, and my go-to setup for this species is a Tokina 10–17mm fisheye behind a standard eight-inch dome port. This lens is perfect for big animal encounters as it is wide enough to get super close, while also providing some extra reach when the sharks stay further away. Having the option to zoom in and out will give your images more variety, too. Just remember to refocus and reposition your strobes when shooting at different distances.

Good starting points for your camera settings are a minimum aperture of f/8 and a shutter speed of 1/125s, but expect to play around with this a lot during the dive depending on the available light and the direction you are shooting. You will need to increase the shutter speed significantly if shooting into the sun and to capture the sun beams that look so good in shallow, clear water, as well as keep an eye on your aperture to make sure everything is in focus. Sharks dives are not the best time to practice your blurred-background bokeh techniques!

A photographer gets down low to capture a special shark image

As your movement will be restricted, choose your position in the lineup carefully and take part in multiple dives from different spots to mix it up as much as possible. One thing I always do in these situations is to request to be positioned at the end of the line on one side or the other. This gives you the opportunity to shoot a 180-degree view without other divers getting in the way and ruining the image.

Normally, the bait box and the feeder will be positioned in the middle of the group, so take a turn there as well to get some shots of the sharks approaching the box and taking the bait. Don’t get stuck in one place and spend all your dives taking the same photograph over and over again. Try to find new angles and get creative. If the sharks swim above you, try and block out the sun and capture a nice silhouette shot, and when they swim close to the seabed, as they often do, get down as low as you can to take a picture of the shark scanning the sand for food.

Another insider tip for these types of dives is to get ready as quickly as possible and enter the water first with the shark feeder. I always make sure I am ready to go while most divers dither, and this often results in a few precious moments underwater with just the divemaster and a load of sharks for company before the others catch up. As long as you have your camera prepared and are ready, this is enough time to snag some great images without other divers kicking up sand and blowing bubbles into the frame.

If you are somehow lucky enough to encounter a great hammerhead anywhere other than on a baited shark dive, be prepared for them to be much more skittish and less approachable. The best you can do in this situation is remain calm and hope to get close enough to make the most of that rare opportunity. But if you really want to spend hours in the water with this amazing animal and hopefully capture some award-winning images, take a trip to the Bahamas or Florida and visit one of the only two locations in the world where it is possible to reliably encounter this iconic shark species.

A head-on approach really emphasizes the size of the hammer’s head

In Florida, it is possible to capture images of hammerheads in deeper water

Hammerheads have now taken up residency at Tiger Beach, too

Hammers use their large heads to make quick turns, which helps them to hunt agile prey

A profile image of the great hammerhead hides its strange head but highlights its large dorsal fin


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