If you asked me to envision the ultimate image of a Great White Shark this would be it: a large animal in full hunting mode, beautiful white belly exposed and mouth wide open. A magnificent super predator doing what it does best.
I shot this image in 2001 in the heart of Seal Island’s prime predation zone and very quickly the iconic shot climbed the tiers to become the worlds’ most famous shark photograph. With well over 500 covers, publications and high profile uses there are few wildlife images that rival its impact.
I remember the day I shot the image like it was yesterday.
We had a small film crew joining us on the morning of the 17th of June 2001.
June is typically a high season month for seeing the now-famous predation and breaching activity around Seal Island. As such we had expectantly been waiting for action but after several hours of watching seals and towing of a decoy, we were slowly losing hope.
We were coming down the western side of the Island through the known hotspot of Sector 4.
By this stage, we were all tired. Holding a big camera and lens in front of your face for hours on end, day after day, week after week, takes its toll.
Your concentration can’t waver for a second, as ultimately if you are lucky, the action may last a maximum of 7/10ths of one.
What makes it even more important to concentrate is that for shooting high impact imagery of sharks and other marine wildlife, we have custom designed our boats to allow me to shoot at almost water level. This means you get absolutely no warning of when something might come rocketing up through the ocean’s surface.
In 2001 I was 28 years old, as such my reflexes were about as sharp as they were ever going to be. I had also recently upgraded my gear to be using the Canon 1V, which at the time was the world’s fastest camera. So I had a lot going for me.
That said nothing can quite prepare you for a fully committed high-speed breach, one second you are staring at water and the next thing is a magnificent super predator flying through the air. The success or failure is in how quickly you press the trigger.
Even though it happens in a blink you register what you saw. This was in the time of film remember, no scrolling on the back of your DSLR to see what you got, you had to rely on what you thought you may have seen. I knew what we had just seen was amazing and the details of a very big shark performing a full-frontal mouth open breach were quickly confirmed to us by the playback of the film crew.
It was now time to go to the lab, it was late on a Friday and this meant an agonizing wait until Monday when all would be revealed. We gave strict instructions to be especially careful when processing this roll of film.
I spent the weekend contemplating all my possible mistakes.
Would the image be sharp?
Would I have accidentally cropped parts of the shark?
Did I get the yips and jerk my camera?
These were all real concerns. Above all, I knew that the impact of this image was in the first split second of emergence from the water when the shark had its mouth open.
Was I quick enough to get this or had a split-seconds lapse in concentration cost me?
I remember so well going to the Creative Colour Lab in Cape Town on that Monday morning, pushing the lab door open, and then hearing applause as the technicians laid my fears to rest.
Looking under the loop I scanned the first slide. It was soft, an incredible image but no good. Why had they clapped? I was shaking with nerves.
Then the second image, the big one…… If there was ever an image I had to really be on the button for this was it…… SHARP!! , the 1V had nailed it!
In the nearly two decades of shooting to follow at the most intense Great White Shark predation site on earth, we have never seen before nor since, a breach to rival Air Jaws.
Exhibition: 173cm x 116cm (68” x 45.5”)
Classic: 118cm x 79cm (46.5” x 31”)
© Chris Fallows 2018