Today’s guest post is courtesy of Liv Gaunt. Liv has been exploring the world independently since she was 17. She became a diving instructor whilst still a teenager. Liv has lived and worked on islands, yachts and mountains, in villages and cities and worked her way around the world, earning her living mostly as a diving instructor and shark photographer. She is always busy exploring and trying to understand new places and nicknamed ‘Sharkgirl’. Liv documents her travel experiences and many misadventures on her website: The World is Waiting.
How did you get into shark photography? Did the photography come first or the sharks?
Taking photos has been something I have enjoyed since I was given my first point and shoot throw away camera as a child, which I mainly used to stalk family pets.
When I discovered scuba diving at 16 I took my photography underwater.
I have always loved being by, on, in and under the sea, and capturing all the wonderful underwater creatures on camera became an obsession.
By the age of 18 I was a scuba diving instructor living in Turkey and teaching underwater photography courses, amongst others.
I came to shark photography simply, when I responded to a job listing looking for an underwater photographer and videographer in the Bahamas.
Interestingly the job description made no mention of sharks, but, since underwater critters are one of my favourite things about the ocean, showing them off through photography sounded like a great job opportunity. Besides, who doesn’t like the sound of living in the Bahamas?
What’s the standard ‘day in the life’ of a shark photographer?
Often photography work is freelance so there will be a lot of variety depending on where you are working and which sharks you expect to see. In the Bahamas I worked in a photolab that was part of a large diving centre. For the first time in my diving career I was employed simply to take photos and video, and not to teach divers (other than underwater photography and videography courses). We were a small team of four and covered shark-feeding dive trips and private shark-feeds, as well as the various other dive trips offered at the centre. We would prepare cameras and our dive gear ahead of the day’s diving and head to the boats. The boats were usually staffed with a boat captain, dive leader and photographer and / or videographer. Pointing cameras in the sharks’ faces made us vulnerable to the occasional mis-aimed chomp so we wore chainmail gloves to protect our hands and arms. We would do two dives in the morning and download our photos, show them to the divers and sell them over lunchtime, before heading out for another two dives in the afternoon and doing it all again.
What were the shark-feeding dives like?
Every shark feed was different. The sharks we dived with were wild sharks in the ocean. Diving so frequently, we recognised individuals but we never had any control of them or even whether or not they turned up. We gave very thorough dive briefings ahead of the feed to ensure divers understood the most appropriate ways to behave near the sharks as they came very close and often brushed past divers during the feed. The photographer entered the water first and when the divers came arranged them on their knees in a semi circle on the ocean floor, at a depth of around 12-16 metres. The sharks cruised around eyeing us carefully. It was immediately apparent when the feeder entered the water with a baitbox as all the sharks would instantly head to the boat. The feeder stood in the middle of the circle, and with a long spear would offer the sharks a piece of fish. As photographer it was my job to get great photos of the sharks feeding and the divers with sharks around them, but I was also the safety diver in case anyone needed help as the feeder, with normally in excess of 30 sharks all keen on a nibble, understandably had his hands full. When the feeder returned to the boat I would encourage the divers to look for shark teeth on the ocean floor, as the sharks often lose teeth whilst eating.
What was it like the first time you dived with so many sharks?
I had dived in Barbados, Egypt and Kenya before arriving in the Bahamas so I was familiar with the excitement of meeting a shark whilst diving, but when I went on the shark feed dive for the first time, the proximity to the sharks and the number of them blew me away. I quickly grew used to them and relished the first minute or two of each feeding-dive when I was alone in the water with them. During my descent they would swim up to me as I made my way to the bottom. Glances to either side met with their inquisitive looks and they often swam directly over me and beneath me. It was a bit like having a set of shark bodyguards!
Do you think shark feeding has an impact on shark behaviour?
There are many operators around the world offering shark-feeding experiences and I cannot say generally that it does or does not impact upon the behaviour of all sharks. I do believe that when conducted in a responsible manner shark-feeding does little to increase the incidence of random shark encounters. On the feeds we operated the sharks would share about 8 pieces of fish (and by share I mean first come-first served, they don’t have the best table manners). Since there were usually more than 30 sharks, most of them missed out. This meant that the sharks could not rely on us as a free feed. They still had to find food in order to survive. The sites at which we fed the sharks were also at least 10 minutes by boat from the shore, with the most popular site being 16 kilometres offshore, so the feeds are unlikely to have attracted the sharks towards shore.
It’s obviously pretty well known that sharks can kill humans and so they have a pretty bad reputation. Is that fair? Should we be trying to do more to save sharks?
There are over 400 species of sharks and only a handful of them have been involved in incidents that have been fatal to humans, so no I don’t think sharks deserve their reputation as fearsome killers. Sharks can kill humans but they do not seek to. In fact, most are fussier eaters than you may imagine. Occasionally as a joke someone would slip a dead rat into the baitbox in the Bahamas and the shark that got the rat would spit it out. Without hands to enable them to investigate things in the way we do sharks bump and bite things to determine what they are. Mistaken identity is often a contributing factor in shark attacks too. From beneath, surfers resemble prey such as seals and murky water also limits visibility. Sharks get scared too. In the Bahamas we could tell if the sharks had encountered fishermen since we last met as they were occasionally visibly spooked and would not come as close to us.
To put their reputation in perspective around 17 shark attacks prove fatal each year around the world. Dog attacks result in around 37 fatalities in the US alone each year and road accidents cause over a million deaths worldwide each year. Mosquitos are largely regarded as a nuisance rather than killers, yet they are responsible for the deaths of more than two million people each year. I do not deny that being bitten by a shark is frightening, but so is being bitten by a dog, or anything for that matter. The terrible reputation of sharks is largely a result of the Jaws movies and media hype.
We should certainly do more to protect sharks. Half of all shark species are considered endangered. Bearing in mind that sharks are at the top of the oceanic food chain, this has serious implications for other underwater wildlife and ultimately our planet.
Where did you have your favourite shark diving experience?
I have seen Great Whites, Hammerheads, Caribbean Reef, Whitetip Reef, Blacktip Reef, Nurse, Wobbegongs, Angel sharks and Whale sharks in the wild. The speed and power of Great Whites up close was impressive. I dived with them off Gaansbai in South Africa. I enjoyed the ambush tactics of Angel Sharks in Egypt and marvelled at hammerheads. Feeding sharks in the Bahamas was exciting. I think my favourite shark encounter of all was happening across whale sharks off Kenya. They really are gentle giants and are such beautiful creatures. I have since swum with them on Ningaloo Reef, Australia too, but they are known to gather there. In Kenya we felt really lucky to have encountered them.
What advice would you give someone wanting to work as a shark photographer?
To do this work you need to be extremely comfortable underwater and around sharks. With your hands full of camera equipment and strobes, you don’t have the ability to be constantly adjusting your gear. Being able to effectively manipulate your position around a subject underwater can be as simple as taking a deep breath or sculling backwards a few inches with your fins, but perfecting precision movement underwater comes with experience and advanced diving skills. Having a sound understanding of sharks will help in your interaction with them and obviously knowing your way around your camera is important. I would strongly advise getting qualified as a scuba diving instructor. This is useful in order to arrange work permits and makes you more useful to employers too.