Bull sharks are a common sight in Cabo Pulmo National Park
In Part I of our guide to shark diving in Baja, David Valencia covered the two largest sharks found in the region: the great white and the whale shark. Here, in Part II, he focuses on bull sharks in Cabo Pulmo, schooling hammerheads at Gordo Banks, and completes the feature with a number of iconic pelagic species in Cabo San Lucas.
Cabo Pulmo: Bull Sharks
Cabo Pulmo National Marine Park is the crown jewel of all national parks in Mexico. It has been dubbed the most successful national park in the country and provides a pristine habitat for a variety of marine life. Scripps Institution of Oceanography conducted a study from 1999 to 2009 and found that the overall biomass in the marine park had increased by 463%. Along with that, top predators increased in the area by 1000%. For all you shark photographers, that means lots of bull sharks.
Since Cabo Pulmo is a national park, no chumming is allowed, and all shark interactions are natural. There are a few dive sites where the bull sharks can be seen. The guides will know best where to find them, but typically the bull sharks frequent El Vencedor, Las Casitas, or El Islote, depending on the water temperature and time of year. Even though this is a natural interaction, the bull sharks come close and I’ve seen as many as 13 at the same time when it’s high season.
Interactions with bull sharks here are completely natural and no bait is used at any time
The bull sharks can be seen on the dive sites practically year round, but there are times of year when visibility is great and shark action is better. August through December is when you’ll find the best dive conditions in Cabo Pulmo, with visibility in the 30–75ft (9–23m) range. To give yourself the best chance of coming away with excellent images, dive for multiple days to maximize your chance of optimum conditions and shark action.
The national park has some unpopular rules, but keep in mind that the rules exist to preserve the park and the animals. Divers can only do one popular dive site per two dives and this all depends on availability, so be sure to let your operator know what your objectives are. Also, there are rules about the maximum number of divers on a site per week, and when the park is busy, dive sites can get closed. On Wednesdays, the park opens the dive sites again, so keep that in mind for planning your trip. Make sure to also apply for a permit to take pictures as the park requires that as well. Your operator will know how to handle it.
Schooling fish and bull sharks in the same wide angle image
First of all, I would recommend using the widest lens possible, a fisheye zoom being the perfect choice for these particular dives. There is so much life in the park that you can get some really amazing images of the scene filled with snappers, groupers, and of course, bull sharks.
I have heard conflicting information regarding the use of strobes. They are allowed on other dive sites, but with the sharks, operators can be sensitive and not allow them. Technically, focus lights are allowed and that can be enough to light the sharks as they come close—and they will come close! It’s advisable to listen to the instructions of your operator, and they will give you the best advice with regard to strobes. Either way, it’s good to mix it up and shoot natural light, too.
Natural light images convert well to black and white
If you haven’t dived with bull sharks before, be prepared for a fun dive filled with close passes. Be patient: As the sharks get more comfortable with your presence, they will gradually close in. Choose a spot and kneel in the sand and wait. This will bring the sharks to you and keep the visibility decent. Keep your head on a swivel and be aware where they are, as bull sharks are famous for sneaking up behind you when you least expect it!
Schooling hammerheads at depth at Gordo Banks
Gordo Banks: Scalloped Hammerheads
In the not-too-distant past, scalloped hammerheads had all but disappeared from southern Baja’s waters due to overfishing. In the late 1990s, commercial fishing had free reign over the Sea of Cortez. It was a disaster for sharks and other ocean wildlife. Since then, rules have changed and locals implemented conservation efforts, though only recently have divers seen a recovery. It’s nothing short of incredible that these resilient sharks have made a comeback.
Gordo Banks is a deep water pinnacle where lots of pelagics can be seen, including schooling scalloped hammerheads. The bottom is deep—80–120ft (25–38m)—and there can be strong current. The sharks can be found up-current of the pinnacle, mostly in the blue and definitely deep, so be prepared. If or when you find them, it can be a spectacle unlike any other. These dives are for advanced divers only. With such strong current and blue water diving, one must be self sufficient and responsible for one’s own safety. Nitrox is definitely recommended, too, as it will enhance your no decompression time so you have more time to shoot.
A wide-angle lens is best to get as many sharks in the frame as possible
As with most shark dives, a good wide-angle or fisheye lens is recommended. The sharks are usually far away, but the school is huge so you want to fit as many of them in the frame as possible. Be prepared to dial up your ISO so your camera is more sensitive to the dark blue of the deep; start in the ISO 400–500 range. Strobes are not really necessary as the hammerheads are too far away and there can be current. It is difficult to get close enough where strobes would be effective. Still, on a calmer day, strobes might be an option. By all means take them; just don't expect to use them.
The hammerheads have been seen almost year round, but the season that seems to be best is November through March, with the absolute best months being November and December, as the water is still warm and deep blue. December until April also coincides with the humpback whale season, and whales can possibly be seen underwater, too.
- East Cape Explorers: www.eastcapeexplorers.com
- Dive Ninjas: www.diveninjaexpeditions.com
- Manta Scuba: www.caboscuba.com
A photographer shoots a beautiful mako shark in Cabo San Lucas
Cabo San Lucas: Blue Sharks, Makos, Smooth Hammerheads, and Silky sharks
It’s a little-known fact that Cabo San Lucas is one of the best places in the world for photographing pelagic shark species. Deep water lurks very close to shore, and in some spots, 3,000ft (900m) can be just a few miles away from the marina. This depth is perfect when you are looking for pelagic species, as the pinnacles, canyons, and slopes into deep water is where you’ll find them.
There’s a season for everything in Cabo, so be aware when the best times are for the species you are looking for. The sharks that can be found here are blue sharks, makos, smooth hammerheads, and silky sharks. Water temperatures and food availability dictate which sharks will be around and when. This varies a bit from year to year, but generally the seasons that I share below are accurate.
Blue sharks come close and provide awesome photography opportunities
Blue Sharks: The “friendliest” of all the pelagic shark species start to show up in December and stay until May. I liken their behavior to a golden retriever, as they seem to want to interact in close with everyone in the water. Prime time for this species is March and April, where we can see multiple blues together or with other species like the mako. Typically, we see blues in the 5–7ft (1.5–2.1m) range.
Mako sharks come in hot and very close, so be ready
Mako Sharks: The fastest shark in the ocean migrates into the area in mid–late December and will stay around through June. Makos are not shy and will likely test everyone in the water at least once as they zip around inspecting everything. We can see them out of season, but not likely once the water warms up. Prime time is again March and April, where we can see multiple makos mixing it up with blue sharks. The makos seen here are juveniles, and individuals as small as 4ft (1.2m) and as large as 9ft (2.7m) have been observed.
Smooth hammerhead interactions can be hard to come by, but amazing when it all comes together
Smooth Hammerheads: The second-largest species of hammerhead are cool characters and are some of the most difficult to interact with, as they can be very shy. The individuals that do stick around are big—in the 8–12ft (2.4–3.6m) region. Their season is March to July, and May and June is when there are the most in the area.
Silky sharks often arrive in large groups and are willing subjects
Silky Sharks: Silkies are the most familiar to shark photographers, as they can be seen in many places around the world. These pelagic scavengers favor warm water, and their season begins in June and last until December. What makes silky season exciting here is the mating aggregations. Usually, in July, when the sharks are still arriving, we get lots of excited silkies and the environment is electric. As many as 20 to 30 can show up on a dive!
Use a combination of natural light and strobe light in your images
All interactions with these pelagic sharks are done while snorkeling, which makes taking good photos a fun challenge. Make sure you are neutrally weighted so you’re not wasting energy at the surface. That goes for your camera, too. Wide angle is your best bet for shooting these sharks, as they will be in very close proximity. A fisheye or rectilinear wide angle is perfect.
Often, shooting wide when the subject is very close is more difficult than you think. Most of us need to practice feeling confident shooting without looking through the viewfinder. I recommend aiming for just ahead of the mid-body to make sure you capture the entire shark. If you aim for the head only, you will crop out fins unintentionally. When composing a shot, also try to angle away from the boat and lines; otherwise, the shots will not look as natural. It even helps to freedive down a little so you can create more angles. This can even attract the attention of the sharks, so be ready to shoot at all times.
A wide-angle lens is essential when shooting blue sharks and other pelagic species
Since these interactions take place on the surface, there is plenty of light, so it’s a photographer’s choice to bring strobes or leave them. I personally like the effect of strobes, especially when there’s less-than-ideal visibility. The strobes can bring out more detail in the shark, nicely contrasted with the blue background. Just be careful not to blow out the white undersides of the shark’s belly: Start by dialling the strobes down to half power and go from there.
Be aware that strobes can also be difficult to handle while freediving or in current on the surface, so know your personal limitations. If possible, use fellow divers in the water as models. Some people will probably be interacting with the sharks as well, so why not use them? Divers can create scale and a connection to the shark, which makes the image more interesting.
Include divers in your images to add scale and promote shark ecotourism
Surface shark interactions give us an opportunity for a variety of different shots. Use your imagination and be creative. Consider attempting to capture over-unders, vertical shots, silhouettes, close-ups, diver and shark interactions, and natural light images. One recommendation is to leave out the chum from your image if possible, as it tends to detract from the final result and takes away from the feeling of a natural environment.
Getting this clsoe to a smooth hammerhead is a rare occurence. Make the most of it!
Support Shark Tourism
Some of us dive and travel in pursuit of something special. Perhaps it’s a passion for a particular place or species, maybe we have a feeling of amazement while discovering something new, or maybe we are inspired by what incredible ocean wildlife teaches us about the environment and about ourselves. Whatever the reason, people are drawn to the ocean and sharks in particular. Despite dwindling shark populations, environmentally conscious travelers have turned to ecotourism, looking to enjoy animals in their natural environment. Shark tourism is one category of ecotourism and that has increased exponentially in recent years.
Ask anyone in shark conservation and they will tell you that our toothed friends have a PR problem. Sharks have big toothy grins and the public are not familiar with sharks except from what they have seen in movies and TV. Unfortunately, those media do not typically portray sharks in a good light, nor do they strive to describe their true nature. When people have the opportunity to see sharks first-hand, their minds are changed and they begin to see the truth: Sharks have vitally important roles in the ecosystem and they are curious characters that people can coexist with.
In a recent study in the journal Nature, it was reported that since 1970, global shark populations have declined more than 70 percent. The main culprit is increased global fishing, especially indiscriminate longliners that set out thousands of baited hooks at a time. Sharks are not always targeted but caught as by-catch in the tuna and swordfish fisheries.
The sad truth about shark populations only makes shark tourism and shark photography that much more interesting and important. As photographers, we have a responsibility to sharks and to our viewers to spread awareness, educate, and inspire. We also should do our best to support those shark and ecotourism operators and projects that conduct responsible shark tourism. If we, as shark photographers, promote awareness and show support for sustainability, the public may be influenced more to pay for the enjoyment of healthy ecosystems and shark populations that will, in effect, bring more value to sharks alive and provide economic benefits to the local communities that depend on them.
Shark ecotourism is a great way to inspire interest in shark conservation
To see more of David’s work, visit his Instagram page, where you can find even more epic Mexican shark images.
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