The porbeagle, a very uncommonly seen or photographed shark, France
When most people think of France, the first things that come to mind might be the Eiffel Tower or croissants. Shark diving likely wouldn’t even make the top 500 reasons to visit the country! However, for underwater photographers, especially shark divers, France is one of the few places on the planet where you can come face to face with a rarely seen and even more rarely photographed shark. Off the coast of Brittany, photographers can meet the phantom of the North Atlantic—the porbeagle.
Porbeagle sharks are mackerel sharks. They belong to the same family as the great white, salmon shark, and mako. In fact, at first glance, you could be forgiven for thinking the porbeagle is a mako or a salmon shark, as they look quite similar. Like the other members of the family, porbeagles are endothermic, meaning they can maintain a much higher body temperature and survive in the cold waters of the North Atlantic. Being able to pump warm blood around their brain, organs and muscles is a huge advantage in a cold water environment. In fact, porbeagles have been found in water as cold as 34°F (1°C)! Their elusivity and preference for dark, cold water is perhaps the reason they fly under the radar of most people, even those very invested in sharks.
A freediver lines up a shot on a porbeagle off the coast of Brittany, France
Challenging Diving Conditions
Locations that come to mind for shark diving might be the sunny, warm, shallow waters of Tiger Beach in the Bahamas, or the bright blue Gulf Stream off Florida, or maybe the crystal-clear waters of Tahiti. Cold-water-loving porbeagles don’t make it quite so easy. When I visited France in June, my dive computer read 55°F (13°C) at the surface. Proper exposure gear is an absolute must. You can’t show up to photograph porbeagles in a shortie or 1mm skin. I wore a 5mm open cell freedive suit with Farmer John bottoms. That gave me 10mm coverage on my core. A drysuit is an option but that will all but eliminate any ability to freedive and get down to shark level.
Unlike many shark diving destinations, the region of France we visited is prone to large amounts of rainfall. Visibility therefore ranges from poor to nonexistent. We got relatively lucky on our trip and had merely poor visibility, but murky water lets through far less light and the water was quite dark. We went with a research team and were forbidden from using strobes with the porbeagles so supplemental light was a no-go. This meant compromises with regards to camera settings that were less than ideal. We had to use higher than normal ISOs (1000+ range), wider than normal apertures, and slower than preferred shutter speeds.
As any wildlife photographer knows, no matter what nice things you say to your subject nor how hard you silently implore them to cooperate, it does not always work. Porbeagles very rarely come all the way to the surface: Often we were diving down to 35 feet to capture images. Short of being a world-class freediver and holding your breath for minutes at a time, this style of shooting severely restricts your photographic opportunities.
A female porbeagle cruising by in the murk, Brittany, France
Few people have experience with porbeagles in the water. This made the trip exciting but also meant we arrived in France with no idea how the sharks would actually behave around us. Would it be like their cousin, the shortfin mako? Makos are notoriously high energy and extremely fast moving; they are the fastest shark in the ocean after all. Or would the porbeagles behave more like salmon sharks, which are very shy and far more cautious around divers?
Over a five-day span, we encountered multiple porbeagles each day and some individuals we saw on multiple dives. To our great enjoyment and surprise, they turned out to be far more inquisitive and curious than I expected and far more laid-back than makos, which I have spent a lot of time in the water with. Porbeagles have massive eyes and in person they are incredibly emotive. There is no mistaking when a porbeagle is locking eyes with you, and they’ll hold eye contact for an entire pass as they cruise by. It was truly an amazing and humbling experience to share that sort of moment with such a fantastic predator.
As with most sharks, paying close attention will allow you to pick up on patterns (they are creatures of habit), and this allows you to anticipate where and when a shark is going to be. Once we figured out each individual porbeagle, we were able to have more successful freedive sessions. I found a weirdly successful technique: I’d dive down, remain in place, and shake my camera, pushing and pulling it rapidly forward and back. For whatever reason, it piqued their curiosity and more often than not, I’d come face to face with a shark as it came up to inspect what the wacky bubble breather was up to.
The research team has noted in their time studying the sharks—and we witnessed it ourselves—that unlike most mackerel sharks, which tend to be loners, porbeagles are often seen traveling together. In fact, every single time multiple sharks showed up on a dive, they would arrive together and leave together.
A big, battle-scarred porbeagle eyeballs the camera as she passes by, Brittany, France
Over previous decades, porbeagle shark populations had been declining at an alarming rate, and they are listed by the IUCN as “Critically Endangered” in the northeastern Atlantic and Mediterranean Sea due to heavy fishing pressure. The research team we used for our trip has worked with IUCN and actually managed to get the porbeagle fishery in the region closed. Not coincidentally, over the last few years, a slow rise in porbeagle populations has been observed.
Each day we’d venture out, the team would take videos and pictures to identify as many individual sharks as possible through patterns, scars, and so on. Laser measurements were taken of each shark to determine size accurately and often they were able to take skin samples to do DNA testing. A question the team is trying to find answers to is why the north coast of France is so important to porbeagles, as so far there is no real theory as to why it is a hotspot for these sharks. Perhaps a pupping ground? Interestingly, there have been no males observed in the region, just females.
Can a shark be cute? This porbeagle certainly makes a compelling case for it! Brittany, France
I almost always photograph sharks with strobes. But, as previously mentioned, the research team did not allow them. Perhaps it would not have mattered much anyway. The water was so full of particulates, any flashed images might have looked like a shark in a snowstorm.
My go-to setup for just about any shark excursion is the Tokina 10–17mm on my trusty Nikon D500 in a Nauticam housing. Fisheyes allow you to get up close and personal to your subject and eliminate as much murky water as possible while still capturing the entire shark in your frame. The Tokina on a crop-sensor camera also provides just that little bit of zoom range if the sharks aren’t quite close enough for the full 180 degrees.
For freediving-specific shark trips, I often find the 4-inch mini-dome to be the best option, as it makes maneuvering in the water and freediving to depths a far more pleasant experience than dragging around a 9-inch glass dome. Especially in open water, without important elements of an image in the corners, the big dome will not provide much of an image quality advantage anyway.
A porbeagle makes a pinpoint turn, Brittany, France
While porbeagles were the whole point of our trip, the area is home to lots of other interesting marine life. Each day, we did a scuba dive at a marine sanctuary and were lucky enough to encounter several spotted catsharks, a diminutive bottom-dwelling species, as well as marbled torpedo rays, and gray seals.
Perhaps France wasn’t on your diving wish list before but maybe, just maybe, it is worth taking a trip. The chance to photograph the “phantom of the North Atlantic” was too good for me to pass up. I imagine other hardcore sharkers might feel the same.
France isn’t only about porbeagle sharks. Diminutive spotted catsharks can be found on scuba dives in Brittany, France
A playful gray seal, relaxing in the kelp, Brittany, France
Marbled torpedo ray, camouflaged on the ocean floor, Brittany, France
The check out more of Josh’s awesome big-animal work, especially his shark imagery, please visit his Instagram page.
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