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Lions of the Deep

ISSUE:  Winter 2011
A bronze whaler shark charges into a wild bait ball off South Africa's east coast during the annual sardine run.
A bronze whaler shark charges into a wild bait ball off South Africa’s east coast during the annual sardine run.
Reef sharks breaking the surface of the water at Aldabra Atoll.
Aldabra Atoll harbors one of the world’s largest populations of reef sharks. Its remoteness and protected status as a World Heritage Site have made it one of the Indian Ocean’s last near-pristine marine environments.

The shot took years to set up. He had seen it in his mind’s eye and sketched it with pen and pad dozens of times: a bronze whaler shark charging upward into a tight school of sardines, jaws open improbably wide, a regal predator frozen in an instant of total ascendancy. Most winters, a tongue of cold water licks the South African coast, bringing millions of sardines and thousands of sharks in an eastward migration, but the swift moving sardine runs and trailing sharks are hard to intercept. Even if you catch up in a motorboat, winter storms, confused swells, and turbid water from flooding river mouths combine to form atrocious shooting conditions. But on an oddly clear and calm July day in 2007, Tom Peschak found the perfect school of sardines. “I was in the water with a hundred-plus bronze whaler sharks. There were another three hundred dolphins. Gannets were raining from the sky. Two Bryde’s whales lurked at the edges of visibility. To get a sardine bait ball you can see that clearly like that … I’ve had that maybe three times in eight years.”

Peschak was free diving in the midst of this natural feast, holding his breath for a minute at a time without the reassurance of a shark cage. The sharks took turns blitzing the bait ball, and each time, Peschak tried to swim a little closer to frame the shot. With a 16mm wide-angle lens, he needed to edge within a half a meter of the shark’s path, but Peschak dismisses the idea that he was in any real danger. “It’s easy to sell pictures of sharks if you put in the usual ‘photographer risks life and limb to capture close up pictures of deadly man-eaters’ bullshit,” he says now. “My angle is, ‘Did you know that sharks aren’t that dangerous?’”

Statistically speaking, he’s right. There are usually only about sixty shark attacks a year worldwide, and very few are fatal. (Deadly moose attacks are far more common.) However, fatal shark attacks are spectacularly gruesome. Last January, a Zimbabwean tourist was killed by a great white off Cape Town, and a witness tweeted dramatically: “Holy shit! We just saw a gigantic shark eat what looked like a person in front of our house. That shark was huge. Like dinosaur huge.” Sharks have an image problem, and Peschak wants his work to show them as elegant, otherworldly hunters—as worthy of our awe as lions. “Yes, they’re hunters. Yes, they’re apex predators. But if you look at their shapes and the way they school in shivers, they’re also amazingly beautiful.”

Sharks are in urgent need of such a makeover. A recent report by the International Union for the Conservation of Nature asserts that onethird of ocean sharks are approaching extinction. Fishermen have always taken a few sharks as accidental by-catch, but they were never seen as a target species, Peschak says. “They were mainly considered pests. They stole bait; they tangled gear.” But in the last thirty years, as other traditional fisheries have dwindled and people have sought new sources of cheap protein, shark fishing has grown from a handful of local subsistence industries to a major global fishery. To compound the problem, the growing Chinese middle class has rediscovered shark fin soup, a dish considered elitist by Maoists and only eaten by royalty before Communism. As many as seventy million sharks are now harvested every year, just for their fi ns. “We’ve already lost 95 percent of the apex predator sharks in the North Atlantic,” Peschak says. “They’re gone. Finished. And the same thing is happening in the Indian Ocean.”

A blacktip shark gapes after swallowing a sardine.
A blacktip shark gapes after swallowing a sardine. Sharks are one of evolution’s greatest success stories—their blueprint so near-perfect that it has remained almost unchanged for a hundred million years. Today, more than 440 species of shark roam the world’s seas, inhabiting every realm from the shallowest coral reefs to the deepest ocean trenches.
A mature female silky shark is offloaded from a fishing dhow in the Arabian Sea.
A mature female silky shark is offloaded from a fishing dhow in the Arabian Sea. The region is home to a prodigious gillnet fishery that supplies a significant proportion of the world’s shark catch, most of it bound for Hong Kong and China.
Piles of sharks lined up and awaiting auction on a dock off the Arabian Sea.
Piles of sharks lined up and awaiting auction on a dock off the Arabian Sea. An estimated 73 million sharks are killed around the world every year and as a result the IUCN has added fi fty shark species to its Red List.
A Sri Lankan fisherman cuts the fin off a bull shark, taken by gillnet near the capital city of Colombo.
A Sri Lankan fisherman cuts the fin off a bull shark, taken by gillnet near the capital city of Colombo. Shark fi ns can fetch more than $300 per pound—making them one of the most sought after marine products in the world.

To document this situation, Peschak has been spending more and more of his time with fishermen in Sri Lanka and in the Arabian Sea. Because sharks were not fished in those waters for so many years, they seem abundant to local fishermen who have turned to them out of desperation. “They don’t get rich doing this,” Peschak explains. “They’re just trying to feed their families. The only way to decrease the impact on sharks is to offer these guys an alternative way to make a living.” Shark meat has dangerously high levels of lead and mercury, and according to Peschak, it’s only a quick fi x for these small fishing communities. Sharks take many years to reach maturity, which means their populations don’t bounce back after heavy fishing. “Shark fisheries are very lucrative for a couple of years—for the dealers and middlemen—and then they collapse. It’s boom and bust. And that’s not good for the fishermen, either.”

Before turning to photography full time, Peschak pursued a doctorate in marine biology at the University of Cape Town. He became frustrated at how overwhelming scientifi c evidence could not bring about tougher conservation laws. Meanwhile, he took the occasional underwater picture and published a photo essay about abalone that struck a nerve in South Africa. “We managed to get an anti-poaching task force created. We managed to get a special marine prosecutions court. We managed to get new legislation in a marine reserve that banned night diving and other activities that made poaching easier.”

He was hooked. Peschak abandoned his studies to focus exclusively on photography and in eight years has won several awards and become a contributing photographer for National Geographic magazine. Even so, he primarily funds his work as chief photographer of the Save Our Seas Foundation and as a fellow of the International League of Conservation Photographers. In an era of dwindling resources for journalism, this may seem like a clever fallback strategy, but Peschak says he wouldn’t have it any other way. “The foundation gives me the ability to tell the most important marine conservation stories of our times. I don’t have to tell the same stories again and again that will bring me the biggest paycheck. As a freelancer, I would fi nd it more diffi cult to fund pure conservation photography, because photos of dead sharks don’t sell all that well.”

His position at Save Our Seas also means he can completely refocus his efforts mid-project without worrying about what a magazine editor might think. Two years ago, for example, Peschak was taking underwater photos of kelp forests in the Arabian Sea when he heard about a nearby village in which fishermen were landing a startling number of sharks. While driving home from a long day of diving, he stopped off at the village on a whim. “I pulled up the car and got out and after three minutes of walking up the pier, it was just, ‘Holy crap!’” He scrapped the kelp forest project and spent fi ve days shooting and chatting up the local fishermen until he outstayed his welcome. The resulting photos show the catch from two small vessels: nearly a hundred sharks neatly splayed on the pier. “They unload two boats every two hours from fi ve in the afternoon until two in the morning. They fi ll up the dock and then they auction them off in lots. It’s a constant conveyor belt of shark carnage.”

While conservation is always the goal, Peschak says he’s obsessive about taking a good photograph, even when he is shooting gruesome subjects. “I spend weeks taking beautiful, nicely lit images of dead animals that I love to see in the ocean alive. You have to almost make those images even more hypnotizing and mesmerizing because people have to look at them.” As with the underwater photos, Peschak visualizes his fishery photos years before he captures them. “The image of the guys pulling the shark out of the dhow, that’s an image I’ve had in my mind for a long time. A shark underwater looks powerful, majestic. Then, look at the silky shark being pulled off the boat. It’s dead, defeated. It looks so pitiful out of its element. I wanted to get them pulling it off the boat, and I wanted the nets in the background.”

In an era of industrialized global fisheries, it’s increasingly clear we could collapse the oceans’ major ecosystems, shutting down the primary source of food for over half the world’s population. Peschak is haunted by the prospect.

Peschak says many fishermen, when given a way to make a good living, choose to swim with the sharks in their world rather than haul them into ours. A recent article in National Geographic by Peschak led to the creation of a marine reserve in the Maldives where tourism has overtaken fishing. “You have guys who used to be the biggest manta ray and shark hunters who are now making a living taking the tourists to snorkel and dive. You have your classic hunter turned into eco-conservationist who is actually making a better living in order to support his family in a much more sustainable way now. For him, sharks and rays are now worth more alive than dead.”

There are only a small handful of marine reserves where sharks are still plentiful, which makes it very diffi cult to photograph them everywhere else without chumming the water. “People have this weird misconception that if you hop in the ocean, within three seconds you will be surrounded by sharks. Maybe a hundred years ago. Unfortunately, those days are long, long gone.” Peschak can hover in the water all day trying to get one or two up-close images of a single shark in the wild. “It comes a little closer then swims away. Then comes a little closer and swims away. Then, you move your fi n too quickly and it’s gone and you don’t see it again for an hour.”

Like neighborhood cats, sharks balance caution with a curiosity that eventually brings them into camera range. Literature and fi lms depict them as perfectly adapted mindless killers, lacking individuality or thought, but Peschak says the stereotype is off base. “Each shark has an individual character. There are bold sharks, aggressive sharks, sharks that are scared, sharks that are curious. The larger species are especially curious.” Other divers tell stories of sharks gently nibbling them, using their mouths, their best sensory organ, without lethal intent. “They’re interested in you, but not as a food item. They’ll come up and have a good look and bump you slightly. They almost treat you like another shark.”

For those of us who care about aquatic wildlife, these are gloomy times. Just fi fty years ago, the bounty of the seas seemed boundless, mocking our efforts to catch all we could. Now, in an era of industrialized global fisheries, it’s increasingly clear we could collapse the oceans’ major ecosystems, shutting down the primary source of food for over half the world’s population. Peschak is haunted by the prospect, but he chooses to believe that we will not allow the utter destruction of our oceans. “Think about what humanity has achieved. The Cold War is over. The Berlin Wall fell. We put a man on the moon. Surely we can prevent our oceans from going into irreversible decline. So, yeah, I do have hope.”

Peschak believes if people care about sharks, they will demand their governments protect them. The trick is to show people the havoc being visited upon shark populations but also to take those people to the awe-inspiring places where sharks are their most natural selves. “There are a handful of locations where sharks still fulfi ll their rightful role on the top of the marine food chain,” Peschak says. “There are still places out there where nature is intact. Where life goes on as it has for the last thousands of years.”

Jesse Dukes recently contributed a radio story to Studio 360 on deer hunting in Virginia and an article to GlobalPost on the wildebeest migration in Tanzania.

A juvenile puffadder shyshark rests in a diver's hand.
A juvenile puffadder shyshark rests in a diver’s hand.
A diver marvels at a large broadnose sevengill shark at close range at Castle Rock Marine Reserve near Cape Town.
A diver marvels at a large broadnose sevengill shark at close range at Castle Rock Marine Reserve near Cape Town. Diving with sharks has grown dramatically in popularity in recent years, and today one can swim with more than twenty species in two-dozen countries.
A circle of sharks swim in a formation like the numbers on a clock face.
Sharks are the lions of the deep. They throne on the apex of the food chain and are crucial for maintaining a healthy balance of life in the ocean. There are few places, like Aliwal Shoal Marine Reserve in South Africa, where one can still encounter sharks in such great numbers.


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