Through a Photographer's Lens, Sharks Get a Makeover

More than a hundred million sharks are killed each year, primarily for their fins. Brian Skerry goes to extraordinary lengths to highlight their importance—and show us their beauty.

Underwater photographer Brian Skerry's first encounter with a female blue shark off the coast of Rhode Island over 30 years ago was a galvanizing moment. "I was entranced by her rich, indigo skin, while every sense in my body was on high alert, my heart racing as I moved closer," he says. "Drawing to within a couple of feet of each other, she barely acknowledged my presence and then vanished into the haze."

The spell has only grown stronger in the years since, and the more he understands these creatures, the more he wants to show them in a different light, as something we might respect and appreciate rather than revile and fear.

Skerry's latest stories for National Geographic magazine speak of the importance of these predators to our ecosystem and the dangers they face for survival. He's made 14 trips around the world to photograph tiger sharks, great whites, oceanic whitetips, and shortfin makos. Here, he shares the combination of passion, skill, and technique it takes to make these images. —National Geographic

Photographing wildlife within the ocean is quite unlike terrestrial photography. Undersea photographers can't use telephoto lenses to make pictures of animals in the distance. Even in the clearest of water, visibility is never that good, and water acts as a giant filter, removing color and refracting and scattering light.

I cannot sit in a camouflaged blind for weeks waiting for an elusive animal to wander past or use wonderful tools such as camera traps. Instead I must dive underwater, where I can remain only as long as the air supply on my back will last, often less than an hour. I need to get close to my subjects, typically within a couple of meters.

Imagine your subject is an apex predator, and the thought becomes especially daunting.

Yet, while coming within a foot of a grizzly bear or lion with camera in hand would be crazy, I’ve done so many times with sharks. And in my experiences I've found most sharks to be rather shy and cautious. Getting one right in front of my lens is difficult and, more often than not, they swim away from me rather than toward me. In comparison with terrestrial predators, sharks seem … polite.

Still, I believe in eliminating as many risks as possible and taking precautions to give myself the best chance of producing high-quality images while remaining safe.

Working with some shark species I look like a medieval knight, donning a chain-mail suit of tiny, welded steel links as protection against a shark bite. I never need it, but it provides peace of mind, allowing me to concentrate on making pictures. I also built a pole cam system, essentially a camera on a stick, that I can use from the safety of the boat. Shark cages can be effective in places like southern Australia, where there are multiple, aggressive sharks, but they're also limiting. Many species won’t approach a cage, and even if they do the photographer is restricted in regards to composition.

But to photograph great whites in the waters of Cape Cod, Massachusetts—where the unique white shark situation is analogous to a new pride of lions emerging in Africa—I had to try something completely different.

Since 2009, great white sharks have been arriving off Cape Cod in increasing numbers. They come here during the summer months to feed on the growing population of gray seals, a species that was largely wiped out in the 1600s by sealers but whose stocks have been increasing since the Marine Mammal Protection Act was created in 1972.

These sharks are completely wild and, unlike in other regions, don't seem interested in approaching boats even when bait is introduced. And the visibility in the water isn't good, with green, murky conditions being the norm.

I was stumped at how to produce a photograph of a shark in this place.

After trying a number of techniques, I finally tried placing cameras inside seal decoys. I had to determine the best position for the camera within the decoy, since I couldn’t move it once deployed. Real-time video was needed as well, in order to see when a shark was in the frame and I had to be able to trigger my camera wirelessly. Lastly, I wanted the shark to be curious but not too interested that it would attack the decoy—which would destroy my camera system.

Working with a talented team of assistants and researchers we built equipment, found elusive sharks, and produced a series of images—including the first images of a great white shark in shallow, green Cape Cod waters.

For the artist within me, sharks represent an endless well of inspiration, a blend of grace and power that lures me into the sea time after time in hopes of producing a new rendering that truly captures their essence. As a journalist, I'm driven by a sense of responsibility and a sense of the urgent need to broadcast that sharks are in trouble and need our help.

In the end, what remains is the photographs, offering a glimpse into the world of complex, misunderstood animals that matter greatly to the health of our planet. And the hope that readers are compelled to appreciate and care about these animals.

Brian Skerry has spent more than 10,000 hours underwater exploring the world’s oceans with a camera. His shark photographs will be on display at the National Geographic Museum in Washington, D.C. until October 2017.