Thomas P. Peschak: Swimming With Sharks

A few weeks ago photographer Thomas P. Peschak stopped by the National Geographic offices to show work from his upcoming story on South African marine reserves. Peschak, who studied marine biology, is passionate about conservation, and once we started talking about his work, I could barely get him to stop.

One arresting image from his project is an underwater silhouette of a surfer and a shark swimming side-by-side. Of course I wanted to know: “How the heck did you do that?” The answer, of course, is complex.

“I didn’t want to create an image that conveyed conflict. I wanted to illustrate the reality and the menace that surfers feel—the yin and the yang of the beautiful shapes.”
—Thomas P. Peschak

Peschak knows the ocean intimately, and says he can read shark behavior just as easily as the average person can tell the difference between a poodle wagging its tail and a Rottweiler menacing its teeth. Peschak says it’s the same with sharks.

“They are not dangerous animals,” he says of the blacktip sharks in these photos. “They are powerful, you have to be respectful, and you have to know what you are doing. It comes from putting in the time in the water, watching them, knowing them. If you don’t know what you are doing, that’s when you get into trouble.”

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A blacktip shark inspects a surfer paddling on a prototype surfboard fitted with a electronic shark deterrent built into its underside. The electronic shield was switched off during the test and the sharks approached closely. When a shark swims into an electrical field, it is thought its ‘ampullae of Lorenzini’—organs that detect weak electromagnetic fields—are overstimulated, causing uncomfortable muscles spasms. Thomas P. Peschak

In these photos, surfers test a prototype of a shark-resistant surfboard under baited conditions off the KwaZulu-Natal coast in South Africa. A device in the board sends out an electromagnetic field to bother the sharks and keep them away. While not yet in mass production, Peschak says the concept shows that people are thinking beyond killing sharks—and instead are looking for ways to co-exist.

Perhaps one of the most surprising things about Peschak’s method is that he doesn’t use any SCUBA gear—instead, he free-dives with only a mask, snorkel, fins, and a weight belt—holding his breath for a few minutes at a time. He says it gives him greater mobility in the water, and allows him to work for longer periods of time. It also makes him seem less threatening to the wildlife.

Peschak also pre-visualize images before he dives, sometimes even sketching them out in advance so he knows what to shoot once he’s in the water.

“One of the things people forget is the amount of time and research that goes into taking pictures,” says Peschak. “Once you are in the water it’s just waiting for it to happen. You know it’s going to happen because you’ve done your homework. One of the secrets is curiosity—speak to people, become a sponge, and make smart decisions about where and what to photograph.”

Thomas P. Peschak’s book Sharks and People was published by the University of Chicago Press in August. You can also see more of his work on his website.