“Pearls don’t lie on the seashore. If you want one, you must dive for it.” — Chinese proverb.
The sound of the wolves coming shouldn’t frighten you into hiding, after all two of the three pigs didn’t do so well. Rather when you hear them coming you need to run faster, feel the wind in your face and climb even higher. Embrace the fact that they still find you worth chasing. Such is how I approach taking images of breaching Great white sharks.
Since I first pulled a decoy way back in 1996 and was able to get what at the time were the world’s first images of great whites leaping out of the water, I have needed to conceptualize new ways to stay ahead of the pack. To this end I have designed boats to allow me to shoot low angles, I have been towed behind our boat on a sled to get closer and I have constantly and diligently applied intense focus to using whatever palate nature gives me each day by way of clouds, waves and vistas to create a canvas that is worthy of having such a compelling subject jump into it.
I think above all I have learnt what the sharks are comfortable with, and where their thresholds lie in terms of what I respectfully can and can’t do.
Back in 2008, I took a wide angle image of a great white breaching at Seal Island in False Bay titled the “Essence of Seal Island” which to this day is one of my favorites. It incorporates a fantastic moody element with its centerpiece, a large great white shark, performing a spectacular 10 foot high breach. It is immensely difficult to get so low to the water and to get a great white to breach so close to our boat. It is also not everyday that you get an almost perfect shark profile at the apex of a jump along with a spectacular stormy sky as a backdrop which needed to be meticulously worked into the making of the image.
Yet, despite this success, I always felt I could do better. I wanted to look up to the shark from water level, never down. Literally thousands of hours were spent lying on my belly, camera in hand waiting to try to recreate the shot. On occasion I came close but never surpassed what I had photographed before. To this end, I conceptualized a mini sled capable of carrying my camera. By being smaller, it had less of a deterring impact by distracting sharks such as our boat or larger sled had the potential of doing so.
The real kicker however, was that this sled rode just 6 inches off the water and my camera sat completely exposed inside a 3 sided box. One bad wave or chop, one big splash, or a shark hitting the sled itself and it would be game over for all my gear. I could have made a housing but then sharpness would have been lost on the image due to the extra glass.
The plan was to tow the decoy close to the sled and get the most spectacular angle possible of a shark taking to the air in a predatory burst of flight that is now days a rare sight.With all the variables for my camera and gear it is an extremely high risk image to acquire, and one with a low percentage of likely return, but if it were to work, it would be hard to beat.
For days we towed the sled with agonizingly close moments where for sure I thought I had drowned my camera in the ever present chop. We knew that there were great whites in the area, but they were not uninterested and for one or other reason didn’t push home an attack on the decoy. On the second last morning of a two week Discovery Channel Shark Week film shoot that was dominated by clear sunny skies,this particular morning dawned with an ominously moody sky. This was the exact sky I wanted, it was a scene giving depth, emotion and drama to the image.
How many times I must have internally begged a shark to jump on this morning, I couldn’t tell you.
The stage was set.
Coming down the West side of the Island I asked our captain to try keep just a little of the seal encrusted island in frame, thereby giving the interesting element of the prey in frame and putting the situation into context. It’s all about the finer details that lift an image from good to great. It all looked too good to be true, we had the perfect canvas but no subject. But then, as if an illusion, it happened…WHOOSH …
Suddenly a torpedo shaped head began to break the ocean’s surface, followed by pectoral fins, and finally the entire body of a great white shark arced 10 foot clear of the water like a jet fighter hanging momentarily as if in suspended flight. Was this a dream? I pressed the trigger for all I was worth, hoping, praying that the signal would be relayed and the camera would fire.
Bamn! The shark slams back into the sea, a torrent of water cascades over my camera like a chandelier shattering on a dance floor.
Elated I shout, fist pumping the air like Tiger Woods having sunk a 15 foot putt on the 18thth green to win the Masters. Adrenalin surges through my veins, a welcome but seldom encountered companion that is only reserved for a few select moments where I have witnessed and photographed something incredibly special. When I feel this rush, I know it is an image I need to have nailed.
I tremble, not knowing if I got the shot or not. My sled still bobs about, and the decoy surfaces still intact behind it. I look away to the captain asking him to help me retrieve the sled. In that fleeting moment of distraction, the shark jumps for a second time, another spectacular breach.
Aaargh, I missed it! The expletives rain down like an Indian monsoon, I didn’t press the #$$%#!! trigger!
I console myself with the fact that I did at least push the trigger on the first breach. We pull the sled in.
A lot could have gone wrong. The camera is covered in water from the splash of the shark landing so close to it. BUT it is working, and remarkably I can still hear the shutter going.
With two left hands I shake trying to extricate my camera from its box. I begin to scroll through dozens of test shots……
Woooohoooo I got it !!! Wait, that’s the second beach.
I scroll further … WOOOOOOOHOOOO, I got the first breach as well!
An incredible stroke of blind luck had allowed me to get not only one, but two incredible moments as the camera’s trigger had jammed open. The first breach, “The Pearl”, is one that symbolizes a career of pushing boundaries, trying new things and never being afraid of taking high risks.
It also is a reflection of a life working with predators, getting to know them, understanding what their comfort levels are, and what the thresholds are within those comfort levels. I truly feel that with this image I am taking my audience into the ocean with the shark at eye level, and showcasing the athleticism of the incredible Great White Shark in all its predatory glory.
Exhibition: 173cm x 117cm (68” x 46”)
Large: 146 cm x 99 cm (57.5 ” x 39″)
Classic: 118cm x 80cm (46.5” x 31.4”)
© Chris Fallows 2018