It took thousands of dollars, a few fake seals, and many months, but underwater photographer Brian Skerry finally got the shot.
With more and more great whites being spotted off the beaches of Cape Cod, Skerry set out to document the massive predators, hoping to learn about their behaviors and shed some light on the oft-misunderstood carnivores. But a lot more than just a beautiful photo was riding on this assignment.
“Sharks suffer from this terrible one-dimensional view that many people have of them as mindless killers. Because of that, it’s been, I believe, easy to almost eradicate sharks,” Skerry says. “Every year more than 100 million sharks are being killed on planet Earth. When you think about the value that predators play to the health of any ecosystem, you realize that we can’t kill 100 million sharks and expect the oceans to be healthy.”
“I wanted to put a face on this shadowy creature that has been portrayed as a monster and show what they look like,” he adds. “I hope that the viewer takes away that these are complex animals, that we need a more informed view of them, a more progressive view of these animals.”
A new population of great whites began emerging in Cape Cod in 2009, likely capitalizing on the dense population of tasty gray seals. “This would be analogous to a new pride of lions emerging in Africa. We just don’t see new populations of predators occurring really anywhere that I’m aware of in the natural world,” Skerry says. But the challenges of photographing this mysterious population presented themselves immediately.
“In other places in the world where you can find great whites, you could put a shark cage in the water, you could put a little chum, a little fish bait, and inevitably attract a great white shark to take a picture of it,” Skerry says. “That’s been tried by researchers in the last few years in Cape Cod with almost no success. If you put blue fin tuna—which is usually the greatest thing you could attract a white shark with—they’re just not interested. The only thing they want to do is feed on seals.
“What I’ve ultimately done was work with researchers who designed seal decoys as a way of attracting the shark to look at the predation strategy, because it also seems that the white sharks here are hunting in a different way than they do in other places in the world. I had the idea of installing cameras inside the seal decoys, which are made out of just neoprene and foam so it wouldn’t hurt the sharks.”
The camera-rigged seal decoys have not only allowed Skerry to put a face to these persecuted animals, but have also provided the scientists with critical data about the sharks’ behaviors and hunting habits, which can be used to keep both the sharks and beach-goers safe.
Still, the researchers and Skerry had a friendly rivalry going due to slightly conflicting interests. Skerry explains: “I wanted a shark that was curious, but not so curious that he destroyed the seal decoy and my camera. Of course, every time I put my decoy in the water, Tom Burns [the shark researcher] would be cheering for a full-on breach where the shark came out of the water with the decoy in its mouth. Every time a decoy got toasted, Tom couldn’t control himself—he was over-the-moon happy. I would reel in my seal decoy praying that the housing was intact and not flooded.”
In the end, both Burns and Skerry could celebrate, having gotten photos and data that tell the stories of great whites in Cape Cod and help inform how we can best protect them and nearby humans. “Yes, they are predators; yes, they have the ability to do great damage; yes, we should be concerned about them and be smart about how we interact and coexist, but these are animals that have survived for hundreds of millions of years. They’ve outlived dinosaurs and many other animals along the way. They’ve evolved to an epitome of evolutionary perfection, [so] that they are perfect for the environment in which they live. We should celebrate that. We should marvel at that and respect it,” Skerry says.
“These are animals that, I believe, are better having in our world. The more that we can learn about them through science and through photography, the better off we will all be.”
To learn more about the science and exploration supported by the nonprofit National Geographic Society, visit natgeo.org/grants.
See Brian Skerry at work in the gorgeous Cortes Bank waters and watch more videos from Expedition Raw.
Producer: Nora Rappaport
Editor: Dave Nathan
Series Producer: Chris Mattle