National Geographic’s SharkFest celebrates the ocean’s apex predators in July. Watch Shark Beach With Chris Hemsworth and other shark-infested programming on the network, and the feature documentary Playing With Sharks streaming on Disney+.
Sometimes the best images are not the ones we plan for. Back in 2003 I was a marine biologist studying kelp forests for my Ph.D., but really I was rushing headlong into becoming a photographer.
I’d become convinced that I could make a bigger difference in conservation with images than with research. So instead of revising thesis chapters, I began spending most of my time making pictures. Increasingly those photographs were of great white sharks, a newfound obsession fueled by my friendship with biologist Michael Scholl of the White Shark Trust. Great whites were big, bold, charismatic—and in dire need of an image makeover.
One summer day Michael alerted me to a puzzlingly large number of sharks near South Africa’s southern tip: nearly a dozen great whites concentrated along a one-mile stretch of beach, patrolling water less than six feet deep. They lurked right behind the breaking waves, just a stone’s throw from the shore. It didn’t take me long to make a plan and pack my gear to join him there.
To learn what the sharks were doing, we first thought to observe them from Michael’s research boat. But that turned out to be difficult because the sharks reacted strongly—and in strangely opposite ways—to the noise of the boat. Some of them tried to bite the engines; others fled at the very sound of them.
We didn’t have a budget for aerial reconnaissance, and small photographic drones had not yet been invented. Our research appeared to be stymied until I suggested a less disruptive and cheaper means of tracking them: a sea kayak.
Since it was my bright idea, I got to go first. After mounting a GPS on the kayak, I slipped into the seat and began paddling. Within a few minutes I was among the sharks. That first outing was nerve-racking: Imagine what separates you from one of the ocean’s apex predators is less than one inch of plastic—and that plastic is bright yellow, a color some sharks find very attractive. Fortunately for me, the sharks never showed aggression toward my low-slung craft. I was able to follow them at close range and observe their natural behavior.
The photographer in me switched on, and I had a vision of an image I wanted to make: one of the sharks being trailed by a researcher in a kayak. Actually capturing the image, though, turned out to be complicated. There were usually plenty of great whites around the kayak—but the slightest gust of wind rippling the ocean surface would turn a shark’s sleek outline into a cubist abstraction. I had to wait for calm conditions.
A few weeks later, conditions were right and I was ready. Harnessed to the flybridge of Michael’s boat, I made photographs of researchers trailing sharks—pictures I thought were nice but unremarkable. I was down to the last few frames on a roll of film when a bold shark approached the rear of the kayak and rose in the water column. Just as its dorsal fin broke the surface, the scientist in the kayak looked back. Instead of the scientist tracking the shark, the shark was tracking the scientist. I clicked the shutter.
The photograph resonated with people in a way I’d never expected. I received 100,000 visitors to my website in the first 24 hours. (In 2003, before the rise of social media, this was considered going viral.) Then things took an unexpected turn: More and more people suspected that I’d faked the picture. Conspiracy theories flourished online, with commenters analyzing everything from the angle of shadows to the ripples from the shark. I began bringing the original slide with me to media interviews as proof of its veracity. The image had put me on the map as a photographer and paid many bills, but I was fed up with having to defend it. When the phone stopped ringing, I was relieved.
Several years later, the story of this photograph took a surreal turn. In 2011, as Hurricane Irene brought massive floods to Puerto Rico, Channel 7 News in Miami showed a photograph of a shark swimming up a flooded street. It was an astonishing scene, but the shark looked familiar.
It was my great white. Someone had photoshopped her into the storm’s aftermath. In 2012 she appeared again, this time swimming up a submerged highway in New Jersey after Hurricane Sandy. In 2017 she meandered along Houston’s flooded streets after Harvey. When an internet prankster claimed that the shark tank at Kuwait’s Scientific Center had collapsed, it was my shark that was digitally added, swimming next to an escalator which itself was from an image of flooding at Toronto’s Union Station. Most recently, after Hurricane Laura devastated the coast of Louisiana, I received a text reading: “Guess who’s back?” I clicked on the link, and there she was.
Few people are indifferent to sharks, which is why these faked images are so compelling. These fish have a way of commanding our attention. As a photographer and storyteller, I take advantage of that. With a powerful image and story, I can transform sharks from dark, menacing creatures into vulnerable animals worthy of respect and protection.
Sharks are storytellers too. They communicate some of the most pressing conservation issues facing our oceans, such as overfishing and climate change. But we have to listen. Though at first that kayak photograph appears foreboding, its true story is quite the opposite—a tale of wonder, curiosity, coexistence. From one picture have come countless chances to tell people more about sharks—conversations that often begin in fear and ignorance but end in fascination.
National Geographic Explorer Thomas Peschak is a photographer and marine biologist. His book Wild Seas will be published by National Geographic in October 2021.
This story appears in the July 2021 issue of National Geographic magazine.