Appeared in DIVER February 2007

Oceanic whitetips are once again a familiar sight in the Red Sea - but can your camera do this spectacular shark justice John Bantin has enjoyed the chance to hone his technique

ONCE CONSIDERED THE MOST NUMEROUS LARGE PREDATOR on modern Planet Earth, oceanic whitetip sharks (Carchahinus longimanus) get their Latin name from their long hands, or aeroplane-like pectoral fins. They roam the oceans of the world, opportunistic feeders near the surface, often with a characteristically large dorsal fin breaking the water. They can be seen investigating any object that might be the source of nourishment.
Oceanic whitetips were the stars of Stan Watermans classic film Blue Water - White Death. He recorded a massive school of them feeding on a harpooned whale awaiting collection by a factory ship.
These sharks never stop swimming, though they have been known to raise a snout to smell the air to give them a better sense of direction for a possible carrion meal. They will take the occasional seabird, and pick up kitchen waste discarded by ships in passage.
Recently oceanic whitetips have been making a comeback in the Egyptian Red Sea, and can often be seen at places such as the Straits of Tiran, Brothers Islands, Elphinstone, Daedelus Reef and anywhere else that deep water abuts a dive site.
They have probably been following boats, drawn by the noise of the engines and the splashes made by divers entering the water.
If you want to see one you must be patient, hanging out in the blue but near the surface.
Encounters tend to be fleeting but repetitive, as the sharks will swim round in large circles investigating the sounds of regulators and the rushing bubbles of exhaled air from divers. They will suddenly appear out of the sun, which is the perfect strategy for an open-water predator.
Though you will rarely see more than one oceanic whitetip at a time, they usually hunt in small groups, accompanied by a host of black-and-white-striped pilotfish such as juvenile jacks. So how do you take good photographs of them
As with all wildlife photography, extreme patience is needed. Knowing that the sharks like to hunt for food around boats, I position myself at around 6m or 8m deep in the water between moored dive boats.
Its helpful if your buddy does the same thing but at some distance from you, as this provides two sets of eyes to spot approaching sharks. A buddy may see an animal approaching from behind you and give you the nod, and you can return the favour.

WITH ALL GOOD UNDERWATER PHOTOGRAPHY, you need to get as close as possible to reduce the amount of water between you and you subject.
As the sharks are usually shallow, you can get reasonable results using natural light, adjusting the colour in Photoshop on your PC later. If you shoot in RAW mode you have the option of an incredible adjustment range.
Small cameras usually take a long time to write a RAW file but with oceanic whitetips you usually get plenty of time between photo-opportunities.
The main problem with natural lighting in deep water is that it all comes from above, so does little to reveal details of a predator designed to be hard to see on its approach.
An external flash takes care of that. For good-quality lighting you will need to use an external flashgun to light up the subject in natural colour rather than the rather flat monochromatic
lighting available naturally.
A quick pulse of light combined with a fast shutter speed also helps do away with any lack of sharpness caused by subject movement and camera shake.
I use two flashguns and an extremely wide-angle lens. Most of my pictures have been taken with a 10.5mm fish-eye lens on a digital Nikon, allowing me to include the whole of a large subject from very close by. The problem lies in getting close enough.
Its no good chasing after sharks, because they can swim a lot faster than us. The successful photographer has to become an ambush predator.
Swimming gently to maintain my station in a soft current, I keep my eyes peeled. If I see a shark coming my way I might make a small adjustment to my depth and position to put myself
in its path.
I keep very horizontal and make shallow fin strokes, so that I present as small a frontal area as possible.
Divers grouped together form a big, daunting shape.
Once I know I have a possible target, I hold my fire. A premature flash can make the shark turn away too early.
I try to hold my nerve, firing at the last possible moment.
Often the shark turns, and the shot is less dramatic than I would like.
The secret is to stay calm and patient. My rule is that if the animal is beyond touching distance, its too far away. There will always be another opportunity and you just have to
spend as long in the water as possible.
This results in long periods of boredom punctuated by a few moments of high excitement.
Exhaled bubbles can spoil a good shot but if a shark passes over your head, do not be tempted to chase it upwards while holding your breath.
Doing this is more dangerous than any shark encounter.


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