Lemon Shark by Clark Morgan
Before sliding off the boat and entering the ocean, I always remind my dive buddies and myself: “I will do my best to take some photos of you and the sharks, but we must remember to capture these upcoming moments in our hearts and souls. The camera may fail, the lighting may not be right, bubbles may get in the way, I may look the wrong way, or Mother Nature may not cooperate. Regardless, we must make the most of this opportunity to enter another realm where nothing else matters: beneath the waves with prehistoric predators.”
Intentionally swimming with sharks for the thrill of the encounter or with the intent to capture photographs may seem insane to many, driven by irrational fears likely instilled from the bloody blockbuster film “Jaws” and other Hollywood hyperbolic shows. However, it is vital to remember that we should be much more afraid of an ocean without sharks than the sharks themselves as they play a crucial ecological role in regulating the food web. Here in Southeast Florida, we are fortunate to co-exist near ecosystems that many shark species also call home. The local abundance of these creatures, whether resident or seasonal, is a testament to the productivity of our coastal estuaries and the effective fisheries management regulations that have helped vulnerable populations recover. For that, and my time underwater with the likes of lemons, bulls, sandbars, blacktips, and silkies in my Florida front yard, I am grateful.
Silky Shark by Clark Morgan
From my perspective in the clear blue waters offshore, it is a unique experience in an environment where I can see the shark, and the shark can see me. It is quite different than bobbing on a surfboard in murky water near an inlet, where jetties often produce the best waves. But a concept applies to both situations – it is the shark that you can’t see that you must worry about. When underwater with sharks, whether you’re near the surface whilst freediving or at depth with a scuba tank, you keep your head on a swivel and remain calm. Many sharks are ambush predators, so eye contact is an important way to acknowledge each other. Body language is also important. A panicked diver flailing and splashing at the surface can invite sharks to investigate in the best way they know how – with their mouths. Staying vigilant of the shark’s body language is also essential, as many species communicate aggression with “shrugged shoulders,” or pectoral fins pointed sharply down and an arched back. Sharks have a sixth sense called the ampullae of Lorenzini that detects electric fields, like those produced by muscle contractions and heartbeats of a stingray hiding in the sand. These electroreceptors, located around their heads, can also detect electric fields produced by humans which is why it is important to be calm when sharing the water with sharks. On the other hand, sharks can also be attracted to the electromagnetic field produced by my camera inside a metal housing, which can make for some great shots when they get close. When they get too close, a simple nudge with the camera or a GoPro pole usually redirects them away and can also help provide a chance to climb back in the boat if a situation intensifies.
Like the warning on a side-view mirror on your car, photographing sharks underwater with a wide-angle lens requires the same disclaimer: “warning – sharks in frame are closer than they appear!” This is also a great reminder to reemphasize the first rule I mentioned: to capture the moments in my heart and soul first. While my camera can make an ephemeral moment an immortal memory with a priceless photograph, my favorite part is pulling the camera away from my face and just be present, immersed in the observation of their raw beauty and power.
Lemon Shark by Clark Morgan
If I had to summarize all the emotions felt in the presence of sharks, I would choose a word I learned on the rugged remote coast of Western Australia – froth. “That dive filled me with froth; I’m frothing over that encounter; I’m frothed from that experience; etc.” Overwhelmed with excitement, one’s mouth is full of froth from sheer exhilaration. On a recent expedition in The Bahamas, I decided froth could parsimoniously be defined as positive emotional adrenaline. Almost peaceful, almost intense, almost cathartic, but full-on froth. Maybe it’s because whilst in the environment of an apex predator, you can’t to focus anywhere else. Surely this is some of it, but there’s more to it. I’m simply mesmerized by the evolutionary pinnacle of the perfect predator – exquisite hydrodynamics cruising effortlessly through the ocean in one instant, and in the next, bursting to the surface, and then gracefully gliding back down into the abyss and out of view. I’ve spent my life in search of my Fountain of Froth and have found a steady supply in swimming with sharks. I can only hope my perspective may inspire you to open your eyes, heart, and soul in search of your own froth too. Who knows? It may be waiting just beneath the ocean’s surface.
Clark Morgan, owner of Seamore Photography, is a local marine biologist and professional wildlife photographer born and raised in Florida. His passions for research and adventure have taken him around the world to Australia, The Bahamas, and Hawai'i, but he loves calling the Treasure Coast home. Learn more at www.seamorephotography.com