Heidi: I know this last trip to South Africa was the punctuation of your shark series and upcoming book/film. Your next project is more land based but equally as adventurous and photogenic. What is the allure of the safari for you? And what story do you hope to tell with these images?
Michael: I have always had a passion and draw towards wildlife, in fact the first photo I can remember taking at 8years old was of a shark. Granted it was a photo of a photo in a magazine but I find it humorous how my life came full circle and I have actually made that childhood fantasy come true. I love being in the wild on land or in the water, it’s just being so close to nature and all the amazing creatures this planet has. I think people are so removed from nature in this modern age and by being disconnected we are also very un-aware of what is going on to our planet. The again people i think know but just don’t want to accept or engage it. It’s much easier sipping a Starbucks in your car and letting someone else deal with it. The problem is eventually it WILL affect us ALL. When food supplies from the ocean start to dwindle away, and the fact that 7 of 8 people on this planet live off the ocean, what do you think is going to happen when people can’t feed their kids? I think your imagination can fill in the blanks. That is what is happening, we are stripping our oceans of so many species and not giving them enough time to reproduce. That is what I hope my photos can do, maybe make people stop and take a look at our planet and say “WHAT CAN I DO TO HELP?” I have 3 daughters and some of these animals I am taking pictures of they may very well never get to see in the wild if we stay at the pace we are going. The fact is we aren’t staying at that pace, we are excelling. In the last 30 years 50% of the Great Barrier reef in Australia is GONE…. YES GONE! that shows signs of progression which means in 10-15 years it will ALL be gone. That is the largest reef on our planet, it is a very scary sign and things like this are happening everywhere what people just don’t seem to care, or care enough to do anything about it.
I have had an image in my head for the last 5 years I need to get out of my head and onto a print. That is a very tough thing when you have an idea and you have to sit with it for so many years. This image I had was a Great White shark breaching in between my strobe lights at night time. Capturing a shark breaching in the air is a challenge all its own, but to get lights out far enough and the shark to breach in the right spot in the small window of darkness needed, well that’s basically a small miracle I was trying to pull off. I have been shooting Great Whites for almost 10 years and have somewhere in the neighborhood of 80,000+ images of this animal. I have photographed it with my lights in almost every way possible, but this one. How does one encourage a Great White to breach? Well I wish it was as easy as throwing a tennis ball like I do with my dogs but it’s not. In order to attain a breach you need to tow a decoy(seal) behind the boat at a distance of 25-40 feet and hope that the shark doesn’t realize it’s not real which they do about 90% of the time.
When a shark breaches, its usually a predatory move and can involve a kill.
Did you feel like you were pressing your luck with your safety for this last trip?
I was in the boat so there is NO danger to towing a decoy. We are also towing a foam seal so there is NO killing of any animal involved. The only thing that happens is a shark waste some energy trying to kill a fake seal and probably gets a little frustration at the discovery it’s not a meal. In all the years I have spent diving with sharks, there has never been any danger presented to me or my crew from the animals. From the diving side there has, with the risk of bends and running out of air etc but never from the animals. We take every precaution necessary when we photograph these animals and treat each shoot with the upmost respect. We are dealing with wild animals so you don’t go in like a cowboy and run wild or that is when accidents happen. Ego is NOT a good thing to bring to this arena, humility and respect are key when dealing with predators. Don’t get me wrong one needs a belly full of confidence and to really have a good grasp of one’s fear and to keep it in check.
I brought a film crew on last years trip as well as this most recent one. We are cutting the footage into a show and since I was attempting to do something no one has ever done before, I wanted to have it on film for the future. I can’t go back and do it again had I got the shot so better to capture it in the moment. Yes I met with one of the Worlds most premiere Great White Scientist Alison Kock who is the Research Manager for Shark Spotters in South Africa. I met with her to see what I could learn, what I can do to help, what the state of sharks are in South Africa and that part of the World. She does amazing work tagging and fighting for the rights of these animals in getting laws passed to protect them which is NOT easy. Commercial fishing is BIG business, its like Oil and they have funds and lawyers and lobbyist that get them what they want which is the ability to make money at any cost. It is a very David and Goliath type of battle.
Everything about this shoot is hard. Waiting hour after hour with my eye pressed up against the view finder in a ball on a moving boat tracking a decoy 40 feet away disappearing behind every wave and the knots in my stomach expecting a 15ft shark to pop up any second. That is what its like to, there is NO warning it just happens and you almost can’t believe its happening. The other thing that happens is a whole bag full of “Murphy’s Law” meaning every time I went to adjust the piece of foam i was sitting on, a shark would breach. The camera man would ask me a question and I would turn for a sec to answer and the shark would breach. I wanted to rip my face off so many times because I knew I was only going to get a few chances at this if that and when those ,missed opportunies happened I was just beyond frustrated. If you want to crush your ego and get really humbled then try shooting great whites breaching off Seal Island in Simons Town South Africa. And NO I can’t be like, hey “nut Case” come back and do that again, only this time when you breach come at me belly first” and yes we have names for most all these sharks, one of which was nut case.
There is not a whole lot to do to pass the time because you are waiting for this thing to happen and have to be ready at all times. Sure we would make jokes and try to keep the mood light but for the most part the tension on the boat you can cut with a knife because EVERYONE wants to see the shark breach, everyone is waiting for this moment to happen and we are all focussed on it. There were many times that an hour would go by with nothing then we would have a breach, but most of the time there would be these times when there would be a series of like 3-4 breaches in like 15min and that would be it so you needed to be ready. At about 10am the sharks stop breaching cause the sun comes up and the seals then gain the advantage and can see the sharks approaching and since they are faster swimmers the sharks don’t waste the energy and that is when we would anchor the boat and set up my “shark Studio” which I would have multiple strobes in and out of the water set up and shoot the sharks in a “portrait” type session. That too involved many hours of waiting in between sharks coming to the boat. There would be none and then without warning we would have 5 sharks around our boat! it was amazing.
The lessons I learn are invaluable, and can be applied mostly to my kids ;) to my commercial work, heck life in general. I learned to pause and be in the moment, and to trust God. I don’t think I have ever prayed harder to the point of tears swelling up in my eyes asking god and the Universe to have that shark breach when I needed it to. I wanted it soooo bad. What I realized is I had to let it go and give it away before it would happen. When you hold on to something that hard, and want something that bad, I think most of the time you don’t get it. Only when you let it go and give it away does it come back to you. There are many times I have to apply patience on my shoots, and yes all those hours on the boat were great building blocks of patience because no person, no commercial job creates the feelings waiting and watching a 2 ton great white fly 15ft out of the water create. Also my commercial clients can talk so we can work things out, sharks haven’t learned to speak yet so until they do they are the boss and we are just spectators in their World.
Gary is a dear friend. He takes photos of TOBY, the name of that doll everywhere around the world, every day. I told him “Gary your never going to be face to face with a great white so let Toby come along on this trip and let him get to experience swimming with a shark which Gary saw the opportunity and kissed TOBY goodbye and put him in my care. I was very protective of Toby and wanted to make sure he came home with all his arms and legs, which of course he did!!!Photographs of Michael by: LELAND HAYWARD
Questions for Alison Kock, the Great White Scientist Research Manager for Shark Spotters in South Africa.
Heidi: What was your involvement on this shooting trip with Michael?
Alison: Michael came to chat to me about the sharks of False Bay, to learn more about the incredible dynamics of the cat and mouse game between the sharks and the seals at Seal Island, and to learn more about the ways Shark Spotters was reducing human-shark wildlife conflict issues. Michael also generously donated a new camera to our research program for documenting individual sharks for our photographic-ID catalogue.
Fact-based information is surprising low when compare to other life threatening risks.
Why do you think the hysteria around shark attacks has developed?
I think that people have an inherent fear of the unknown, and in so many respects we know very little about sharks. Even when there is shark news, it usually follows a bite incident, and many people only get to hear and read about this one aspect of sharks. When people set eyes on their first white shark, the words that come out their mouths are not “man-eater”, “ugly” or “stupid”, contrary, the words are usually more like “beautiful”, “graceful”, “powerful” and “humbling”.
But, the reality is that most people will never get to see a shark in its natural environment, they’ll never get to experience that insight for themselves and therefore its vital that people like Michael who do have access to broader media which is accessible share their experiences. In Michael’s case he brings a really fresh, raw angle to his photographs which depict their grace, power and beauty in a way that people can relate to and appreciate, whether they like sharks or not.
What has your research uncovered thus far about the influence of environmental variables (eco tourism) on great white shark movement / behavior?
I believe that the more we understand about the behavior and movements of large, predatory sharks, the higher the possibility of increasing water user safety and minimizing shark attacks and their subsequent negative conservation and economic repercussions. So far our research team has documented very predictable patterns in their behavior, such as low presence along inshore bather areas during winter, and high presence during summer. We have also discovered that its predominantly female white sharks present inshore during summer months, which has important management and conservation implications due to threats found in this areas. We have also discovered very strong relationships between white shark presence and water temperature and lunar phase, with the highest sightings when the water is warm (around 18 ºC) and during new moon. These behaviors and patterns are likely linked to better opportunities for feeding on their natural prey or ideal environment to be in.
There are quite a large number of products on the market already, and development all over the world to test and find new technologies which are both people and shark friendly. Currently though, there are very few products which have been scientifically verified and those that have produce mixed results depending on the species of shark and it’s behavioural state e.g. is it motivated to feed, or is it simply swimming from one place to another after already having a big meal. In addition to the Shark Spotters program, the City of Cape Town is experimenting with an exclusion (barrier) net at one of its beaches. This exclusion net is different to the traditional shark nets which reduce shark bites by catching sharks and reducing their local populations. The exclusion net acts as an underwater barrier, keeping sharks and people separate, and is an environmentally friendly way to reduce conflict. Other similar concepts are also being trialled.
What is a shark shield?
A shark shield is an electric shark deterrent. Sharks have specialised sensory organs on their heads and snouts which can detect minute electric fields. They use this sense to locate hidden prey. Electric deterrents, in theory, aim to disrupt or overwhelm this sense, to temporarily cause the shark discomfort and have it move away. Research has shown that in some cases they do have an effect, and in other cases they don’t. The bottom line is that as with most safety devices, they can never guarantee safety 100%.
Your organization was founded by Greg Bertish of True Blue Travel and has come a long way from the days of cell phone calls from an overlook. How does the spotting work now?
The Shark Spotting Program is now recognized as the City of Cape Town’s formal shark safety program. We operate on 8 beaches and employ 32 people from Cape Town’s disadvantaged areas. Shark Spotters are positioned at strategic points along the Cape Peninsula, primarily in False Bay coastline. A spotter is placed on the mountain with polarized sunglasses and binoculars. This spotter is in radio contact with another spotter on the beach. If a shark is seen the beach spotter sounds a siren and raises a specific color coded flag (diagram). When the siren sounds the water users are requested to leave the water and only return when the appropriate ‘all clear’ signal is given. The program not only offers direct safety, but provides employment and capacity opportunities for previously disadvantaged members of our community, and it conducts applied research to better understand white shark behaviour and movements, and trial and test new safety technologies. Shark Spotters’ core mission is to find pro-active, environmentally friendly solutions to reduce shark-human conflict, for the benefit of both people and sharks.
We have a number of ways people can donate to our organization. The quickest and easiest is via our PayPal account (http://sharkspotters.org.za/donations). They can also visit that link to make direct transfers into our bank account. We are a registered NPO (NPO 060-390) and Public Benefit Organization (PBO 93037 421). We are also registered under Section 18(a) of the Income Tax Act and are therefore able to issue donations receipts that can be redeemed against an individuals or organizations taxable income.