After getting the taste for small(er) sharks in Tahiti it was time to step up the game and check out the big boys. The Great White Sharks of South Africa!
I was co-leading a photography workshop with Journeys Unforgettable and we had a small group of photography enthusiasts hungry to get the ultimate shark shot. It was a very early morning start to drive from Capetown to False Bay in time to be on the water well before sunrise. After a thorough briefing from the crew we set off for the very aptly named “Seal Island”. We were in good hands on-board shark expert Chris Fellows’ boat.
The behaviour of Great White Sharks in this area is unique. It is the only place in the world where the sharks breach when hunting their prey – the Cape fur seal. Our goal was to try to get the Holy Grail of shark images – the breach with a natural predation. Whilst it is a known feeding habit of this area, anyone who has photographed wildlife will know sightings of this type of behaviour are still rare to witness and even more difficult to catch on camera.
Our morning had dawned fine and calm. The Great Whites feed most actively just prior to and for about an hour after sunrise and again late evening. The only way to get a photo of this live action is to spot the seals returning from offshore fishing to their colony on Seal Island, and then focus on a lone seal or one that has dropped off the back of a group. By tracking just one seal, if you are lucky (and the seal is not), you might get to see some action.
Well, action we got! Fallows says they can often go days without seeing a full breach but we witnessed our first within minutes of sunrise, it was distant but the shark was fully out of the water. Within a few more minutes there was another, this time closer and I was focused on that seal. Jackpot!! I had a breach shot within the first half hour. The action continued and we witnessed 28 predations in an hour before it all went quiet – this was the most they had seen in one morning all season! Of the 28 predations I managed to photograph 3. The action happens so quickly, there is no warning and it is all over within half a second. If you are not tracking the correct seal you have no chance.
I had a moment’s remorse for the seal’s part in this drama they were unwittingly playing out before us, but knowing that this is simply a part of the “Great Circle of Life” and we were amongst only a very lucky few to witness it, soon balanced out any hesitation the group had in being there.
With adrenaline pumping after watching the intense action from above the water, the time had come to get out the cage and see the sharks from beneath the surface. I didn’t need asked twice! I had my Canon 5D mk3 and Aquatech DC5 housing rigged and spent an hour in the cage photographing these giants looming up from the depths. What an incredible day…
The next morning we were to head out again, however this time the weather was not so good and the seas rough. After a discussion with the skipper the decision was made to go, though as expected we saw very little natural action. This is when the crew brought out the decoy seal – made of neoprene it is towed behind the boat for short periods for the researchers to gather information on the unique feeding behaviour of the sharks as they attack the “seal”, which we had affectionately named “Bob”… I lay flat on the back transom of the boat which was open to the sea – to allow me the low perspective I was after – and waited, hoping to catch the split second intensity of the Great White’s breach action yet again.
The sea was so rough it was impossible to keep a visual on “Bob” so I decided to pre-focus and keep my camera on manual to ensure it was locked on. I used f6.3 to give me a slight buffer and just hoped if there was a hit it would stay at equal distance to maintain a sharp image. Well it was just a matter of minutes and the first shark hit, a slightly smaller shark (around 4 metres) came leaping clean out of the water. The 1Dx whirred shots off at 12 FPS and it was in the can! The shark “spat the dummy” as soon as it struck knowing immediately that it was not real.
After re-gathering Bob we had one more tow, this one lasting around 30 minutes which seemed like an eternity when you are hanging off the back of a boat at sea level, propped on your elbows braced against heavy seas and not able to take your eye from the viewfinder for a second in case you miss the shot. When it finally happened it was a much larger shark, hitting “Bob” straight on and facing right down my lens. Then it was all over in the blink of an eye and I was left humbled to have had such a close-hand encounter with the ocean’s apex predator – definitely a highlight of our South African photo tour.
As published in the November Issue of D-Photo Magazine.