Photograph by Otto Whitehead
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Thomas Peschak photographs blacktip reef sharks on Aldabra atoll.
Photograph by Otto Whitehead

Sharks and Ladders: A Photographer Gets a Lift

A few years ago Thomas Peschak’s photo editors at National Geographic, Kathy Moran and David Griffin, told him that in order to get more original perspectives he should stop using his zoom lens so much, and instead just move himself.

He took the advice to heart, knowing that the distinction between a great picture and a National Geographic picture can be a matter of centimeters.

“I now climb trees, I climb buildings, I even climb on tables and chairs. Sometimes getting a different angle makes all the difference,” he says.

So on his recent assignment to the very flat Aldabra atoll to photograph the remarkable recovery of various species, from giant tortoises to sharks, he made sure to carry a ladder to gain elevation. (Well, actually his assistants carried it…)

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Thomas Peschak’s assistants, Steve Benjamin (foreground) and Otto Whitehead, carry equipment, including the ladder, while hiking to their camp on Aldabra’s Grande Terre island. Photograph by Thomas P. Peschak

“I really love getting in close with a wide angle lens to give readers an intimate experience, but the closer you get the more you lose the context of the surrounding landscape” he says.

Peschak originally thought he’d use the ladder to make pictures of grazing giant tortoise herds, but instead it came in more useful while photographing the atoll’s schools of blacktip reef sharks.

At low tide the sharks congregate in a small lagoon on a reef flat in front of the island’s research station, where a brisk current bathes them in cooler and well oxygenated water. They avoid the deeper water off the reef edge where bigger sharks may prey on them.

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A blacktip reef shark swims across the tidal flat in the front of Aldabra’s research station. This photograph was taken without the ladder, while sitting low in the water. Photograph by Thomas P. Peschak

“Aldabra has the highest concentration of blacktip reef sharks I have ever experienced,” says Peschak. “The sheer abundance there is completely insane.”

Aldabra atoll is a group of four small islands in the Indian Ocean, and is part of the Seychelles archipelago. All commercial and recreational fishing is prohibited there, but a small weekly subsistence harvest to feed scientists and rangers at its remote field station is exempt. Because the catch used to be cleaned in front of the station the sharks still get excited by the sound of human footsteps, thinking there’s a meal on the way.

Peschak says it looks like a feeding frenzy, but it’s simply more of a Pavlovian response. Today the fish waste is composted on land, but somehow the sharks still remember the “good old days.”

“After they realize I’m not offering anything to eat they get bored and quickly go back to what they were doing,” he says.

Watch a timelapse of Thomas Peschak using a ladder to photograph blacktip reef sharks.

This low-tide gathering proved to be the perfect place for Peschak to put the stepladder into action— he simply waded out into the water, and plunked it down in the midst of the school of sharks.

“The ladder was a really inexpensive way to get an aerial-like perspective,” says Peschak. “It created an image that simply wouldn’t have been as interesting or unique without it.”

Peschak’s photographs taken with the ladder will be published in a 2016 National Geographic story about marine and terrestrial resurrection in The Seychelles.

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Next week on Proof: Learn how Peschak relied on his assistants and a team of scientists and rangers to make this assignment possible.

Thomas Peschak would like to extend a very special thank you to the Seychelles Island Foundation and the amazing staff at the Aldabra research station for making this visit possible. Thanks also to Steve Benjamin and Otto Whitehead for lugging “the ladder” and hundreds of pounds of equipment through Aldabra’s hostile wilderness.