Seal Island, nestled deep into False Bay, is only 35 minutes from beautiful Cape Town. It is home to 64,000 seals--and a spectacular group of great white sharks.
For the past 16 years I have been lucky enough to witness these sharks hunting on over 6,400 occasion,s which gives an idea of the predatory intensity that takes place here each April to September, when the sharks patrol the islands waters.
As a wildlife photographer and naturalist, it does not come much better or bigger than to have the opportunity to capture 2,000-pound flying sharks on film.
Each hunt and each breach is unique, each carries with it a sense of awe, a raw emotion of the desperate struggle that both predator and prey face when they engage each other, both trying to survive.
The average great white we see at Seal Island is around 11 feet in length--and yet such giant fish are capable of astonishing leaps, sometimes taking their bodies up to 10 feet clear of the water.
The young seals are far from defenseless. Agility coupled with stamina is a fine match to counter the sharks’ speed and power. The wily seals manage to get away as often as they are caught. Some chases last over 5 minutes.
You would think that after seeing thousands of hunts I would be emotionless, but the truth couldn’t be further away. To see a young seal outwitting , out-manoeuvring and outlasting one shark only to be pursued by another and then another before finally succumbing just meters away from its island sanctuary can be tear-jerking, just as it can be a moment of elation when the seal escapes.
Every day during the core of the peak season is a emotional roller coaster, with some of our guests cheering for the sharks and some for the seals. No matter which side of the fence you sit on, you can’t but be spellbound.
To get great images of the action takes time, planning and a lot of experience in ancitipating how each event is likely to play out. Knowing when and where exactly a shark will attack a seal is difficult. For natural predation events we take into consideration each day’s weather and position ourselves accordingly around the island, knowing that certain winds may mean a shift in predatory intensity from one area to another. We try to locate single young seals returning from feeding and watch and follow their progress as they return through some of the world’s most dangerous waters.
Apex Shark Expeditions skipper Poenas or my wife Monique will position the boat in such a manner as to keep a respectful distance from the action without influencing the outcome. At the same time they will position the vessel into the wind for better control, and also on the good light side so as to give me and our guests the best chance to make great images.
The action is brief, powerful and unpredictable, so fast reflexes, good concentration and a modicum of luck are needed to get “the” image. Countless headaches from concentration, numb fingers from the cold, and cramped limbs from being in contorted positions are the order of the day.
Many is the time when I have been a split second late on the trigger or the boat was just not quick enough to get us to the action. However, this is compensated for by having lightning fast gear and an organized and experienced crew.
I use a Canon EOS 1D Mark IV camera body, which shoots 10 frames per second, and a 70-200 f2.8 IS lens as my primary artillery when going into predatory combat against the elements.
For many of our guests as well as ourselves it is a highlight just to see a great white cruising majestically next to the boat, relaxed and confident. But when these sharks turn it on it is for many one of nature’s greatest spectacles.
Although in 1991 South Africa was the first country to protect the great white shark, sadly today we are still statistically the biggest killers of these magnificent animals. The Natal Sharks Board has a netting and drum line program that kills between 11 and 60 great whites per year. They complement the nets with drum lines that specifically target great whites, tigers and bulls, basically all the apex predators.
Ironically, and thankfully, when they check their gear and find a shark alive they release it, which begs the question why they catch it in the first place. Why catch and then release a injured and traumatized animal?
Long-lining, poaching and even beach sport fishing is also still ongoing in South Africa, with authorities doing nothing to stop it.
Sharks of all species kill on average less than 10 people around the world each year, yet we place a huge emphasis and effort on wiping them out. The irony, however, is that by eliminating sharks we might be destroying the greatest balancing organism in the ocean. The ocean ultimately provides a large amount of our oxygen and food and if we mess that up it could result in the deaths of millions of us.
On a positive note, nearly 40,000 people come to South Africa each year with the primary objective of trying to see a great white shark alive in its natural habitat. With this sort of influx of tourists, one can only hope that more people and organizations will put pressure on local authorities to do their jobs properly and look after these important predators in the marine food chain.
Not a day goes past where Monique and I are not grateful for being lucky enough to work where we do, for the privilege of getting to know the bay’s amazing wildlife, and sharing magical moments with the flying great white sharks of False Bay’s Seal Island.
In the Water with the Great White Shark
I first free-dived [without the protection of a diving cage] with a great white shark at Dyer Island's "shark alley" in 1994.
I remember the fear tempered with excitement as we slipped quietly into the water knowing that only two minutes earlier a 10-foot shark had snatched a bait off the back of our boat.
For 20 pensive minutes I searched frantically for the animal that many believed would devour me and my two dive buddies, but it was nowhere to be seen. As we dejectedly climbed back onto our boat there she was, slowly circling, obviously having been watching us from a distance all the time.
Far from being mindless killers, each white shark has it’s own personality, some bold and assertive, some shy and reclusive, and some that just want nothing to do with us in any shape or form.
Since those early days I have free-dived with great white sharks in many locations around the world, not for bravado, but for pleasure. I usually do it with experienced colleagues when the cameras are not around.
To be in the water with a great white, or any large shark, is a beautiful thing, it is that simple. To be allowed to share the same space with this animal as it effortlessly moves through its watery world is a humbling experience. A guest once commented that a great white does not move through the water, the water moves with a great white.
The big bold eye watches you, wondering what you are, whether you pose a threat -- or perhaps you are potentially something it should investigate, but it is not sure how. No doubt there have been moments when I have thought, wow, that is a huge animal that could kill me right now if it wanted to. But equally so there are many moments when you feel a tremendous sense of peace as the massive sharks glide by.
We make sure we free-dive with these animals only when the conditions are perfect and when we have the “right” shark around the boat. To do so at any other time would be disrespectful of the animal as a super predator.
As a wildlife photographer I am always trying to find new and innovative ways to capture images of my subjects, and with sharks it is no different. When I am not free-diving, I often use a contraption called a pole camera, which as its name suggests, is a camera mounted on a pole. I attach a trigger-release which allows me to stick the camera underwater and fire the shutter from the boat. In this way I can sometimes get very close to action I would not wish to encounter if free-diving. It also allows a greater degree of movement as I can simply move from one side of the boat to another, depending on where the action is -- without having to look over my shoulder, wondering where the shark is. Even so, I have over the years had a dome port knocked off by a bold shark and have many take investigatory nibbles.
Sometimes we have rare and unique opportunities to see amazing behavior such as multiple great whites intensely feeding simultaneously on a whale carcass. In such cases I will shoot from the cage, my pole camera, or the surface, as with up to 28 great white sharks in a small area it is not a good idea to get caught up in the middle of the banquet.
To get different images I have employed a novel technique to suit the situation, and that is to lie on the whale carcass to get low and close to the shark action only meters away. If you like nice smelling things and clean clothes, don’t try this! When the sharks bite into the carcass the cavernous mouths compress air out through their gills and teeth as they crunch down onto the fatty meal. The result is a misty plume of wet ,fatty, salty great white shark spit that covers your face and camera. It's not pleasant ,I can promise, but I have to say it is still pretty cool.
Great white sharks visit different habitats at different times of the year. Typically in the fall and winter months, the big great whites concentrate around seal colonies. As spring advances, so the sharks move inshore and patrol broken reef systems that are often close to open sandy beaches. They do this to hunt various bony fish and smaller sharks and rays, and then seem to just “chill out” off the beaches, perhaps using the surf’s oxygenated and warm water to help conserve energy and digest food more efficiently.
What this means is a shift in what I am trying to shoot. In several recent documentaries I have kayaked with up to 30 different great whites, stand-up paddle-boarded with 14-foot sharks, and have even followed them in a small submarine to show people that they do not simply rush in and attack us when in the same waters we enjoy for recreation.
To shoot these animals slowly cruising inshore is not easy. You need flat calm conditions, clear water, interesting backgrounds and sharks near to the surface to be able to adequately show how close the sharks are to shore and how they share a similar summer environment with us.
You need to get close to them when using wide angle lenses such as the Canon 16-35 F2.8, which is my lens of choice to show the whole scene. This can be tricky, as quite often they will simply dive and move away from you, even if you are on something as uninvasive as a kayak. I will usually see what course the shark is moving on, and then go ahead and wait for the shark so that it can choose if it wants to come to me rather than me suddenly paddling up to it.
I use various filters to help take the glare off the water, such as a polarizer and also a graduated filter which better allows me to balance the dark water with the bright sky and shows the shark, my subject, a lot more clearly. I think one of the most beautiful things to see is a massive shark in water so shallow that its belly almost touches the sand, and have a completely uninhabited sandy beach in the background. A scene like this casts my mind back to how it must have been a long time before we arrived and the sharks could simply do their thing without having to worry about shark nets, fishing hooks and propellers.
When it comes to working with great white sharks, if you had to ask me what single image I found the most beautiful it would have to be that of a large great white arching its body upward toward the surface, and in doing so, exposing its huge white belly to the sunlight. I find this great flash of white as the predator adopts a vertical attack magnificent.
A Concert of Predators
Although our ecotourism company is most famous for the expeditions to see False Bay’s Great White Sharks, we also spend vast amounts of time in the company of some other extraordinary marine hunters. One of our summer expeditions is to go far offshore in search of the open ocean predators, which include sharks, game fish and pelagic birds.
The open ocean is a very foreign environment to most people. It is well outside our comfort zone and an environment in which we are decidedly vulnerable. The wildlife we encounter out there in the middle of nowhere has probably never seen a human before, and is as curious of us as we are of them. I think it is this real spirit of adventure that makes this world so attractive to us. It really is one of the last frontiers that we have not mastered.
Far offshore, the water is usually inky blue, warm and has fantastic visibility, so when you see the hunters below the water you really get a good look. As food is very scarce for these predators, anything, including the visiting humans, are carefully and closely investigated and many interactions are intense. To many who see them, the mako is one of the most beautiful and respected of the sea's super sharks. It is certainly the fastest, and coupled with it’s torpedo-like body and metallic blue colors, it is a handsome creature indeed. Makos can be really bold and many is the time when one of these fighter plane-like sharks has jetted narrowly past me, leaving me rocking in its wake.
Occupying a similar niche in the open ocean is the blue shark, which travels huge distances in search of food. Sometimes we will have as many as 30 on a dive, and to be surrounded by all these sharks is breathtaking.
Apart from the sharks we commonly encounter are the game fish, sadly only known to many as a tasty meal on a plate. These iridescent speedsters hunt bait fish and use speed, agility, and even weapons in the form of their bills to slash, catch and eat their quarry. While we wait for the sharks we will often have tuna , dorado and other game fish investigate us.
I remember on one occasion in 2004 when we had a small blue shark and several massive yellowfin tuna around our boat. The tuna would rush up behind the blue shark and brush against its rough skin to scratch an itch or scrape off parasites. The result was a very annoyed and nervous blue shark, which would rock from side to side after each traumatic interaction.
On another occasion we had about 50 yellowfin tuna in the 120lb class around our vessel eating the chunks of sardine that were meant for the sharks. Monique and I took turns diving with them, and I got great pleasure out of seeing how close I could throw the chunks to Monique's mask. The great fish would rush to grab them often less than 2 feet from Monique, leaving her staggering in the their tail wash.
We have also been lucky to dive with sailfish which were actively involved in hunting sardines only meters away. These three-meter long [10 feet] speedsters use their bills to slash the bait fish which are then consumed. When you have a sailfish racing towards you with it’s lancelike bill aimed at your vital or sexual organs you feel a certain amount of discomfort, but on each and every occasion the flamenco-like sail of the fish would be hoisted just before contact in a blaze of color (and bragging) to help it change direction and herd the bait fish to where it wanted them. Simply awesome.
Although they don’t fill you with adrenaline like diving with sharks does at close quarters, one of the most spectacular things about our trips into the open ocean is seeing the incredible array of magnificent seabirds. Those I enjoy the most are the various species of albatross we see on each trip. With wingspans exceeding 11 feet these birds are more like small planes than birds, and when they sweep past overhead it is an amazing experience. Sometimes the albatrosses will settle on the water behind our boat ,as they have learned from following large commercial fishing vessels such as trawlers that boats can offer a free meal. It is at these times that we see the sharks and albatrosses interact, with the sharks trying to nibble the birds' feet and the birds pecking back in defiance.
When you are only inches away from the giant squawking birds and surrounded by sharks it is like being in a whole different world, where the likes of fictional cartoon characters like Peter Pan sailing magical ships cruise by. I have often had to kick away a nosy blue shark who thought he would latch onto a nice white flipper that I generally use to attract them. The entire experience is surreal.
To get most of my shots in these situations is tough, as I obviously want to get both shark and bird. This takes some doing, as to shoot split shots, where you have sky and water, generally needs flat seas, and off the SW tip of Africa that is not the norm. You also have another problem, in that you generally focus on the top water and what’s above it, so forget about the sharks below.
Sadly, 19 or the world’s 22 species of albatross are directly threatened by long lining, the practice of setting tens of thousands of baited hooks from one vessel to catch tuna, swordfish, sharks and other fish. If you want to make a difference as a consumer, be sure that you buy fish that does not come from this fishery.
One of my biggest problems as a wildlife photographer is that I get so darned excited by everything I see, as well as getting emotionally involved. Often as sharks come close, or gannets plunge at 140 kph [90 mph]into the water next to me, I get so caught up in the incredible moment that I forget about settings, composition and my objectives. I really just so love and live for the moment.
A good example of being overwhelmed by wildlife took place in 2010 when we were on our way to watch False Bay’s famous great whites with a group of guests. En route to the island we were distracted by a school of over a thousand common dolphins which were in a great hurry and clearly anxious. We followed the school for a while and then saw the reason for their agitation. A few hundred yards behind them a pod of orcas were in hot pursuit.
The orcas rapidly closed the gap to the dolphins and rode alongside our vessel, sometimes leaping next to us or bow-riding. Guests cried with excitement (or perhaps out of fear) and took hundreds of pictures of the scene unfolding in front of us, sometimes tripping over each other in the process.
I did not know what to do, I tried wide angle shots of the orcas next to us, tight shots of them breaking the surface, landscape shots of the mountains in the background and orcas in the foreground. But seriously, I had no idea of what to focus my attention on. I was a kid in a candy store with five minutes to grab whatever I could.
Slowly I gained composure and figured the money shot would be of the orcas leaping out the water while trying to catch a dolphin, or so I hoped.
I had hardly made my decision when a huge orca exploded into the panic-stricken school about 200 yards away. I missed it, and the language I used was not choice. It was one of those moments where I was angry for missing something, but I quickly thought how darned lucky I was to just be there and should rather relax and enjoy the moment.
I managed a few images that I was very happy with and felt to a certain degree captured what was going on, and while I will never forget what I missed, I also won’t forget what a privilege I had. The message was one I preach all the time: Don’t be so focused on one subject, image or animal that you do not enjoy the moment, scene or other wildlife at hand, as any sighting of any animal is special, and one that many others would love to have.
Of Cats, Dogs and Crocs that Look Like Logs
Since the age of two I have been around wildlife and spent a tremendous amount of time in nature. I don't have a bloodlust or like to see anything die, but I do have a real passion for predators. Perhaps it’s the way they walk or swim , or the way they make me feel when I get close to them in their world, but whatever it is I have a deep love and appreciation for them.
The thought of lying on the ground close to a stalking lion or pack of wild dogs feeding on a kill may not be everyone's idea of a good time, but for me that’s the way I like to spend my time. The more time that you spend with anything the more comfortable you become with it, and so it has been with me and predators. Most people who know my work think of me as the jumping great white shark guy, but I also spend several months of each year (and spent much of my growing up years) in the bush, especially in southern Africa.
Like with the sharks now, I knew from an early age that each particular animal has its own personality. An individual can really stand out, or like your average human, it can blend into the background.
I remember for example 20 years ago, I was nearing the end of my grade school days and was in what was then known as the Kalahari Gemsbok Park. My dad and I were watching a small pride of lions which proceeded to get up and walk down the road toward us, a sight we had seen many times. What was different here was the one huge lioness in the pride.
I can still see her, muscular to the point of being over muscled and a deep scar running down her left foreleg. Her face was battle-hardened and tough, unrelenting like the Kalahari sun. She was a warrior, in her prime and not to be messed with.
She stood taller at the shoulder than any lioness I had ever seen, seemingly as tall as a male lion. She strode forward, almost angrily dismissive of anything that would come between her and what she wanted to do. In her paw marks her two sub-adult cubs followed their mom, the goddess of battle, without question. She walked past our car without blinking, without wavering or missing a step. She was magnificent in every way as a predator, not the most beautiful or lithe, but just potent. She was a wildebeest's ultimate nightmare. I still remember I held my breath -- why I do not know -- until she was past us.
Thousands of lion sightings before and after this one are for the most part a blur, yet I can still remember the exact spot where I saw her and how I felt. If ever there was an animal with a presence she was it, and wherever she rests today I am sure that the Earth and it’s creatures bow down to meet her coming.
I know I seem emotional about what I see, but I truly do feel so grateful to be able to have had these special moments.
For some of the most amazing moments I never got a photo. In 1992 we were in Etosha National Park in Namibia, I was learning to drive and was at the wheel of my father's Golf GTI at a famous sunken water hole called Chudop.
The hole has steep slopes going down to the water. Reeds grow out of the middle. Game is always nervous to drink here as they can’t see predators coming once they are at the water, and on occasion lions would hide in the reeds.
On this occasion two massive adult giraffe drank on one side of the reeds, while drinking obscured on the other side were two lions, one large adult female and a nearly full grown cub. As the giraffes walked away from the hole and up the embankment, the young lion put in a chase and clumsily tried to trip the big giraffe. The adult lioness quickly took up the chase as the now rapidly gaining speed giraffe took flight. Coming out of the sunken water hole onto the flat towards where we were parked, the lioness launched herself 8-10 feet onto the giraffe's rump and then onto her back, riding the giraffe as a jockey would ride a horse while galloping past our car. My dad was also a keen photographer and madly shouted and gesticulated that we follow so that he could reposition to get an incredible shot.
I started the car, put it in gear ... and stalled. I can still feel the panic as I type. The giraffe got away as the lioness eventually fell off a hundred meters down the road, eaving me to deal with my father and a photo likely to never repeat itself.
There are so many lessons to be learned from nature, from team work to patience, from hardship to prosperity and opportunity. A classic example of patience and how tough it can be to be a hunter was graphically shown to Monique and me in 2009. Once again in Etosha National Park, Namibia. We had been sitting on an elevated embankment above a waterhole surrounded by sparse grass and bushes. Concealed in the spiky grass was a lioness waiting for the hundreds of animals that descend on the water holes in the hottest months. The game knows there are predators around, they can smell them and they know from watching their fellow herd members die that these are death traps, yet they have to drink or else they will die for sure. One by one they staggered nervously forward. I sat with my Canon 600mm lens poised, feeling guilty for wanting to photograph some animal's impending fate and at the same time excited about the dramatic action it would bring.
Beads of sweat drip down my forehead, in part because it was well over 100 deg F and in part because it was so nerve wracking. I could see what was happening from both predator's and prey's perspective.
As the first springbok lowered its head to drink after two hours of nervous approach, the lioness broke cover and sprinted forward. As if on springs, the agile antelope changed direction at an impossible angle and the lioness countered with a straight line dash. She closed to within three feet and then extended her paw, trying to trip her quarry, but missed. That attempt cost her a tenth of a second, but and that’s all it took for her meal to escape. Like a machine gunner, I had been hitting the camera the trigger, and even after the dust settled the shutter was still firing, my hands shaking.
For four long days the scene repeated itself with the same lioness. On one occasion she raked the hindquarters of a zebra, and on many others she missed by the narrowest of margins. I had gone from shouting "go springbok, go" to "die, die, die" as the lioness's situation became more desperate. After 11 attempts she finally gave up and walked away crestfallen to her cubs. Such is wildlife and the hardships it endures. A plate of food on our table is really such a gift.
With any form of wildlife photography, knowledge of your subject and anticipation are key. When I photograph big cats from outside of my vehicle I have a good game plan and try not to break the shape of my vehicle or cover I am using. I am also very mindful of the fact that these animals can move incredibly quickly if they need to. But more importantly, if I disturb them by an ill-planned exit or movement I can cost them a meal or frighten them into defending themselves or running into danger.
I think the one thing that runs throughout all my work is that I try wherever I can to not disturb wildlife unnecessarily, and always try to weigh up what I am doing against what my actions can lead to. If I do come unstuck it will not be as a result of an animal that was trying and looking to kill me, but probably rather as a result of a misjudgment on my part -- just like a driving accident.
A thing that people do not understand about predators is their vulnerability. They have fear, they feel pain and they suffer hardships possibly more than any other group of animals. Sadly we destroy their habitat, kill their prey and shoot them for sport, yet persecute them when one dares to kill a human.
If I can impart one pearl of wisdom to anyone who is passionate about nature and wants to work with , photograph or conserve wildlife, I can only say go for it. The understanding and knowledge gained through watching, the appreciation of what you have through nature's hardships, and the acceptance of all creatures' right to survive on this planet are qualities that will help you in all walks of life.
I hope that my images in some way help to inspire others to go out there and experience these moments of magic for themselves. It’s really not that difficult to fall in love with predators.
The couple owns and operates Apex Shark Expeditions, which specializes in photographic and cage diving expeditions to view great white sharks in False Bay, South Africa. Chris hopes that through his images and wildlife expeditions people will appreciate South Africa's magnificent marine predators as much as their terrestrial counterparts.For more of Chris's work check out www.apexpredators.com. Or follow Chris & Monique on Facebook. www.facebook.com/ApexSharks