Photographing great white sharks for 20 years gives Chris and Monique Fallows front row seats on the amazing behavior and secrets of formidable predators few people see. In this post they share ten of their favorite images of great whites and describe the electric moment when each was made, when conditions came together for a photographic capture of an awesome predator.
By Chris and Monique Fallows
We visit great whites almost daily, in all seasons, often in stomach-churning seas. Our most iconic images are made in “the ring of peril,” a stretch of water above an underwater gully alongside Seal Island at the southern tip of Africa. Visitors from across the world come to see this rocky island’s teeming seal colony and watch for giant sharks lunging from dark depths in pursuit of very wary pinnipeds. It’s a dramatic stage where an ancient evolutionary struggle plays out intensely.
It is rarely possible to capture the full drama in a single photograph. And it is not easy to give a balanced impression of the shark’s life history when the images that get most attention are typically those which focus on aggression and predation.
The true craft in wildlife photography comes in where you can not only show the dramatic and exciting characteristics of a predator but also portray in a beautiful and captivating way its less spectacular, more routine behavior.
With these photographs from our long years of watching great whites, we hope to highlight the many different components that go into the lives of these remarkable, efficient and highly evolved super predators.
With more than 50 international documentaries shot at Seal Island, False Bay, South Africa, there can be few, if any, apex predators that have achieved such fame as the great white shark. The reason for this little island’s sharks stealing so much limelight is their spectacular breaching and hunting behavior that nowhere else in the world is observed with the same degree of intensity.
An image of the world’s most famous fish hunting in its full spectacular glory is the holy grail of nature photography.
“The sight of a great white in full hunting mode is for most people a sight that elicits greater response than any other shark image.”
The sight of a great white in full hunting mode is for most people a sight that elicits greater response than any other shark image. Photographing a massive adult exploding from the water, jaws agape, is a display of this super shark’s full predatory prowess – and anyone lucky enough to capture the moment on camera has landed a dream photograph.
Chris recalls a day in June 2001 when he crouched, cramped intently behind his camera, waiting endlessly for a split second of explosive shark action. In an instant the huge shark above popped like a Polaris missile from the water, and in that same moment vaulted into wildlife photographic history. To this day and several thousand breaches later, we have yet to see anything that matches the photo above.
Apart from capturing the power of the shark, a huge emphasis of our photography is in leveraging the surrounding light, clouds and backgrounds as canvas on which to portray the many moods of these magnificent creatures.
Shooting a wide-angle breach of a great white is very difficult as obviously the shark needs to be close to the camera. On a particularly moody morning, approaching storm clouds stretched across False Bay. This gave Chris the beautiful opportunity to hopefully capture a great white in flight against a dark background. Luck was on his side and not only did a shark breach (photo above) but it did so in a magnificent display of aerial athleticism showcasing its incredible capabilities.
On many mornings False Bay wakes up to a dramatic sunrise. Many times on our approach to the island, as the sky transforms into the peachy colors greeting a new day, we would witness the silhouette of a hunting great white shark etched into the morning light. To capture this sight in all its glory, Chris needed the shark to completely clear the water to show its full outline. After hundreds of futile attempts, one golden morning he was able to put all the pieces of the puzzle together and finally get a sunrise breach.
There are times when we simply hope and hope that things will happen: those split seconds where golden shafts of light cascade down onto a small stage of illuminated subjects, or when the subject walks into that tiny opening in a forest before disappearing forever. A dream of ours for a long time had been to capture a shark hunting under a rainbow. Eventually, through great boat handling by Monique, we found our pot of gold.
The awesome essence of the great white shark is that it is a potentially lethal predator, and nothing celebrates this capability better than the pas de deux of survival between the great whites and cape fur seals at Seal Island in False Bay.
For a three- to four-month period each year the great whites focus on hunting seals recently weaned off their mothers’ fat-rich milk. These youngsters are then ready to go into the real world to hunt for themselves.
The complexities of this predator versus prey relationship are many and diverse, with survival at all costs being a central theme throughout.
“Seals dive for protracted periods between breaths and then emerge missile-like to escape an unseen predator.”
From a photographic point of view, this is by far the most difficult to capture as seals dive for protracted periods between breaths and then emerge missile-like to escape an unseen predator, bursting through the surface at upwards of 25 miles per hour. Adding to this a moving boat, choppy sea surface and changing light conditions, it is undoubtedly one of wildlife photography’s more challenging endeavors.
But on occasion all the ingredients are in sync. A massive adult great white launches into a group of seals, its momentum taking it ten foot clear of the water, white belly exposed, mouth agape. Seals flay desperately in all directions, including a grown female tantalizingly in front of the airborne shark’s mouth. One can only imagine the disappointment when a photographer is on the wrong side of the event, missing narrowly what could have been one of the finest marine wildlife action images ever shot. This is the ever-changing hand that luck plays in pursuit of these images.
Although the difficulties can be great, the rewards are greater. The scenes that are sometimes captured display a perfectly matched battle of survival where the most minute differences decide life and death. We have seen seals using the teeth of the super predator as a final point of leverage to push themselves out of the closing jaw. We have watched in awe as seals have for split seconds been balanced on the shark’s snout. And we have been humbled on many occasions by the tiny seals’ tremendous instinct and composure under the most extreme pressure. Nothing demonstrates better how only the fittest survive. The battles at Seal Island are right at the top of nature’s classrooms.
Great White, Dark Moon
As a wildlife photographer and naturalist, you are always looking for different opportunities and behaviors. In 2001 we attempted to observe what the great whites did when the sun went down. With just a glint of torchlight the Apex team watched as the huge sharks glided ghostlike through the shafts of dancing light, their eyes glowing green like those of aliens.
We found that not only did the sharks feed on bait at night, but there were indications that they quite capably hunted seals as well.
Several more expeditions to Seal Island as well as working up the coast in Mossel Bay revealed the incredible after-dark capabilities of these highly sophisticated hunters.
We quickly learnt that it was not smell or vision, as commonly thought, that attracted the sharks to the seals so much as the sounds and vibrations the seals made when they departed and returned to the island under the cloak of darkness.
Moods of the Mighty
While images of great white shark breaching undeniably stoke awe in audiences everywhere, for us as a wildlife photography team perhaps the most gratifying image is one where the quieter majesty of the apex predator is shown.
To capture this I try to leverage whatever combination of light, clouds or seascapes are available as a canvas on which to convey the magnificence and moods of the animal and the watery world it lives in.
The dorsal fin is the iconic symbol of a shark, arousing an emotional human response unlike any other shape in the animal world. Here the dorsal fin is photographed from a really low angle to emphasize the famous triangular shape most people associate with a great white shark.
Sharks and people have co-existed in so many ways for centuries, in most cases with humans fearing sharks and sharks being indifferent towards us.
We have had the privilege of spending thousands of days in the company of great whites, so we see these sharks in a very different way than does someone who sees one for the first time. We see their many different behaviors, we watch them grow and mature through different stages of their lives, we witness their vulnerability in the face of threats from humans and nature. But mostly we have come to know them as individuals, each one exhibiting unique traits.
I hope that through our lens and words we show in some small the many facets of these sharks and their lives so that people can more broadly appreciate just how special they are.
Chris and Monique Fallows have shared their photography and filmmaking of this unique aerial display of flying seals and sharks through documentaries for the BBC, National Geographic, and Discovery. Through their company, Apex Predators, they take scientists and tourists to see this wildlife phenomenon up close.