BE THE CHAMP! - Great White Sharks
GREAT WHITE SHARK – three simple words that resonate through the oceans and through the diving community. Quite simply this is the most famous fish in the world, and a must-have species for any underwater photographer’s portfolio.
Diving with white sharks (experienced divers show off their familiarity by dropping the “great”) is very different to other species. With reef sharks, for example, when bait is put in the water they immediately start circling it, nudging the crates.
White sharks really hunt the bait. You won’t see them for ages, and then suddenly they appear at speed.
If they fail, they will try again from a different angle. It’s exciting, and you have to be ready for the shot.
Second, we almost always photograph them from inside a cage. Yes, people regularly have safe encounters with white sharks outside cages, but what makes these experiences safe is divers giving the sharks their complete attention.
Photography is better when securely inside the cage because it lets us focus on our images and settings and not have to keep checking behind our backs.
The sharks will also come much closer to a baited cage than they will to free-swimming divers.
Finally, most great white shark dive operators have designed their cages and bait-wrangling to create excellent photographic opportunities.
Although great white sharks are distributed widely in the oceans there are three classic destinations for reliable encounters.
Gaansbai, near Cape Town, South Africa is the most accessible. The sites are close to shore and white sharks can be seen on day-trips. Sharks are plentiful, but visibility can be limited.
South Australia also has a strong population of sharks, which can be seen most reliably at the Neptune Islands, out of Port Lincoln. This requires a multi-day liveaboard trip.
Visibility is usually decent, and one of the main operators, Rodney Fox Shark Expeditions, has both surface and seabed cages. The latter, uniquely, provides the chance to photograph sharks with a feeling of habitat.
My favourite photographic destination is Guadalupe Island, in the clear Pacific Ocean waters off Mexico, because it has a large number of sharks and reliably good visibility.
The island is 20 hours’ steam offshore, which means a multi-day liveaboard trip. Most operators have surface and mid-water cages.
CAGE-DIVING trips are not like normal dive holidays. We won’t usually need fins, BCs, regs or tanks. Most operators use surface-supplied air on hookah regulators. This makes for more space in the cage and means we don’t have to worry about our air consumption when the action hots up!
The cages are open all day, every day, with divers swapping in and out on rotation, typically one hour in, one hour out.
A golden rule for successful underwater photography is always to dive and travel with other photographers. These are people who want the same type of diving.
Cage-diving trips are the opposite. It is much better to travel alone and hope that your boat doesn’t have too many super-keen photographers. That way, after the first couple of days, there will be much less demand for places in the cage!
White sharks are a temperate species, which means cooler water conditions (somewhere between Red Sea in winter and the English Channel in summer). I always dress a little on the warm side, so that if the action is good and nobody wants my space I can stay in as long as my bladder lets me!
I always wear lots of weight so that I am stable, especially if there are waves, current or the boat is swinging in the wind (all of which mean lots of water movement in the cage).
Some cage trips are snorkel only, which is a restriction for photography.
Shark cages are always a shared space. Generally everyone picks a spot and stays there for the dive. Pay attention to the position of the sun before getting in and aim for the corner that lets you shoot out with the light behind you.
Watch how the bait-wranglers are moving the bait and predict a good position for shots. That said, the sharks have a habit of turning up where you least expect, and many times the photographer who thinks that they are in the worst position gets the best shots.
The optimum camera set-up for cage diving is a pared-down rig. A big setup takes up too much space in the cage and is hard to manoeuvre in and out through the bars.
We will always be in the cage, but our camera will usually be outside. The two main ways people shoot are either to lean out of the opening in the cage or to put the camera on the outside and hold it through the bars.
IN LOWER-VISIBILITY situations with surface-mounted cages, you can shoot happily without strobes. This greatly reduces the size of the rig and makes the camera easy to handle, especially if there are waves. However, white sharks are strongly counter-shaded, to camouflage them in natural light, and therefore benefit from a burst of flash.
Use a fast shutter speed to freeze the action, and a relatively open aperture so that the light reaches the subject.
When using strobes in a shark cage I always mount them with just a single strobe-arm on each side, which is easier to squeeze out through the opening than standard double strobe-arms.
I will also favour a smaller dome-port, for the same reason and to save damaging a larger expensive one in the cramped cage.
Although great white sharks are large, we usually don’t want to use our widest lenses. Often the sharks do not come close enough to fill the frame of a fisheye, and when they do, they get tadpoled in the picture (big head, tiny body) by the lens distortion.
Also, it is harder to keep the bait and the cage out of shot with the widest lenses. Better options are a fisheye zoom, a fisheye with a teleconverter or a rectilinear wide-angle zoom.
In bright, clear conditions, autofocus works well, but be prepared to switch to fixed focus if it is struggling.
There is always lots of waiting around with white sharks, so use that time to prepare for the shot. White sharks have a habit of popping up when and where you least expect, so make sure that your exposures are correct and you are ready to shoot.
Work as a team, keeping your eyes open, and communicate to others when a shark is approaching.
Despite their reputation, great white sharks are not thrown into a frenzy the moment bait is put in the water. Shark trips customarily involve lots of waiting around for the big boys and girls to show up.
Be patient and get your settings dialled in so that you’re ready when the action kicks off.
With lots of excited divers and waves washing through the structure of the cage, there are often lots of bubbles in the water. These will stick to our dome-port and ruin our shots, even though we won’t notice them at the time. Wipe a hand over your dome periodically to keep it clean.
There is a macho fallacy that photographers need to be outside the cage for great images.
This is because that almost every photographer who has been out of the cage is desperate to tell you so. They will show you lots of average pictures of themselves with the sharks, but almost invariably their strongest pictures were taken when they were in the cage!