To find out what high concentrations of great white sharks were doing close to beaches during the austral summer, scientists from the White Shark Trust used sea kayaks to track inshore shark movements off the southern tip of Africa. Western Cape, South Africa © Thomas P. Peschak
Endemic to South Africa’s kelp forests, a juvenile puffadder shy shark hovers above my dive guide’s hand. © Thomas P. Peschak
For his book Sharks and People, National Geographic photographer and marine biologist Thomas Peschak examines the behaviors and condition of the great fish, honing in on the nuances of the widely misunderstood animals. Here, we meet the mammoth whale shark and a tender pup the size of a human palm. In the same breath, we are confronted with the painful realities of our dealings with sharks, in which we ourselves are revealed to be the fearsome hunters.
Hardly the formidable antagonists of mankind that we are presented with in popular media, Peschak’s sharks are both enchantingly noble and excruciatingly vulnerable. As many shark populations continue to decline a disturbing rate, these magical underwater images capture marine moments that might soon be lost forever, unless we take steps to protect these majestic creatures. We spoke to Peschek about the project.
The water column is a three-dimensional habitat for sharks. Instead of travelling horizontally across the ocean, many species, like tiger sharks bounce up and down, repeatedly descending and ascending through the water column, in hopes of picking up any signs of prey. Aliwal Shoal, South Africa © Thomas P. Peschak
As a marine biologist and photographer, what inspired you to pursue this project?
“The idea for photographing and writing a book about the relationship between sharks and people came to me more than a decade ago. While sitting in a seedy bar along the South African coast night after night, I chipped away at a book I was working on about great white sharks. As word spread of what I was up to, I found myself spending most of my evenings talking to people about sharks. There is a hunger for knowledge about these animals and how they relate to our lives. From burley bikers to grandmothers, I conversed with all types about sharks until the wee hours of the morning. After several nights of this, I had my “aha” moment. I realized that many people have an abundant desire to talk about sharks, but there is also an abundance of misinformation about them, which feeds into the culture of fear surrounding these popular predators. Then and there I vowed to create a book that investigates and honestly reports on the complex and contentious relationship between “Jaws” and us. More than ten years later Sharks and People is the culmination of my journey as a photographer, journalist and marine biologist investigating, experiencing and exploring the shark/human interface.”
A tiger shark is released after being fitting with a satellite tag to monitor it’s long-term migratory movements. Aliwal Shoal, South Africa © Thomas P. Peschak
Could you tell us a little bit about these species of sharks and how you hope to portray their behaviors and conditions?
“For the Sharks and People project I travelled to more than two-dozen locations and had encounters with more than 30 different species of sharks. Some of the older photographs were taken during expeditions for conservation NGO’s like WWF and the Save our Seas Foundation and the more recent images were shot during my assignments for National Geographic Magazine. Visually I believe in finding a balance between the carrot and the stick approaches. You can do conservation photography in two ways. One way is to show people the beauty and the biodiversity that remains. You can say, ‘this is what is at stake and what we still have to protect.’ To do this you have to create a character around the animal by describing behaviours that endear themselves to the audience. It’s about nurturing a connection between the audience and the species. The risk with this approach is that you can create the impression that everything is okay, which makes people complacent. The other approach focuses on the problem. The truth is that the wonderful Edens of biodiversity that appear in wildlife documentaries are a fraction of our planet. They are a splice in time. The reality is that our exploitation of the planet is having an incredibly detrimental and destructive impact. We’re at a point where our actions have shaped the planet as much as geological processes. This is not something people want to face and they try to avoid images that portray this reality. It’s a challenge, but just because they’re hard-edged and hard to look at does not mean these photographs cannot be beautiful. I had to learn to create engaging imagery on the darker side of things.
“As a photojournalist, it is my job to reflect accurately the reality of our time. Thus alongside the beautiful images of sharks in pristine realms, I included many images in that explore the darker side of our relationship with sharks—shark carcasses, piles of shark fins, and barren seascapes devoid of life. I realize that some of the readers will find these photographs are hard to look at and digest but a book that consists of only beautiful images of sharks would not be a truthful representation of the world we live in.”
Silky shark carcasses arranged in orderly parallel rows await auction at a port along the Arabian Sea. From here, sharks are shipped across the desert in freezer trucks to Dubai, where their fins are exported to Hong Kong. Oman, Arabia © Thomas P. Peschak
How do these creatures interact with people? How do you define our relationship with sharks?
“Sharks are different things to different people. I have spent as much time with shark fishermen as I have with conservationists. I have spent time with surfers who are afraid of sharks and with divers who seek them out. I have tried to surround myself with as many different perspectives as possible. I am hoping the book will widen perspectives and create conversations. It is not pro shark or pro people. It’s about trying to find ways for people and sharks to co-exist. I am not under any illusions that this book is a panacea, but I am hoping it will contribute to a dialogue leading to ideas for more successful shark/human interactions. To those who are already enchanted with sharks, I hope this book strengthens the bond and builds on your understanding. For the uninitiated, I hope your view of sharks transforms from that of dark menacing creatures into animals worthy of respect and protection.”
Whale Shark Selfie, Maldives © Thomas P. Peschak
Europa Atoll and Bassas da India are two French territories—specks on the map, tucked between Madagascar and southern Africa. They are home to some of the healthiest shark populations in the Indian Ocean. Galapagos sharks are particularly abundant and reign uncontested as the apex of the inshore marine food web. Mozambique Channel, Africa © Thomas P. Peschak
Could you tell us a little bit about your photographs of shark finning? What happens to the rest of the animal?
“People have hunted and eaten sharks for more than 5000 years, but the beginnings of commercial shark fisheries only developed in the 1800s. These early fisheries supplied the market with shark liver oil, which was rich in Vitamin A. The first shark meat fisheries were established in the 1930s to supply a newly burgeoning market for cheap protein in developing nations. Nonetheless, up to the 1980s the shark’s principal commercial value lay in the meat, but then dramatic changes swept through the Far East. It was then that shark fins overshadowed the meat and oil as the most desired and valuable part of the shark.
“Shark fin soup is often claimed to have been an integral part of Chinese culture for thousands of years, but apart from in Guangzhou province, it was never widely served except to emperors and other nobility. In fact, during the times of Mao Tse-tung, shark fin soup was branded a bourgeois relic and banned. However in 1987, that law was repealed and with the middle class growing more affluent every year, the demand for shark fin soup in China has skyrocketed. It is now served primarily at wedding banquets to demonstrate wealth and to honor the guests. The part of the shark fin that is consumed is the cartilage, the flexible soft tissue of the fin. Shark fins are tasteless but have a slippery glutinous texture, resembling clear noodles and are said to bring out and enhance the flavor of other ingredients. It is regarded as a tonic food and the belief is that the fin strengthens the internal organs and delays aging.
“The stark discrepancy in value between the fins and meat has led to the wasteful practice known as shark finning. In the past, most fisheries would return to port with the entire shark, selling both the meat and fins for profit. In the practice of finning, the shark’s fins are cut off and the animal is thrown back into the sea to die a slow death by drowning (as sharks need their fins to swim and must swim to breathe). Instead of taking up valuable space on the boat with low-value meat, they arrive back with only high-value fins. Apart from being cruel, this practice is incredibly wasteful, with less than 5% of the animal being utilized. This is the equivalent to hunting a rabbit or a pheasant and cutting of one ear or part of the foot and dumping the rest of carcass to rot in the field.”
Shark finning at sea is a common and wasteful practice, but many shark fisheries land the entire animal, butchering for both meat and fins. This seasoned fishermen wields his razor sharp machete, slicing fin after fin from the mountains of sharks offloaded each morning. Sri Lanka © Thomas P. Peschak
Shark fins landed the previous night now dry in the sun at the edge of the Arabian Desert. In recent years Arabia has become the 5th largest exporter of shark fins to Asia, resulting in declines of local shark populations. Oman, Arabia © Thomas P. Peschak
What is the status of the species you photograph? What are the major threats to their population?
“To fulfill the demand for shark fins, fishing fleets comb every inch of ocean and there are frighteningly few places left where sharks are not being overexploited. Sharks are hunted primarily with arrays of long lines (often hundreds of kilometers long) and baited with more than 1500 hooks. Indonesia is the world’s leading shark fishing nation, followed by India, Spain and Taiwan. The exact number of sharks harvested by fisheries every year however is surrounded by great uncertainty, but it is estimated that the fins of between 40-100 million sharks can enter the shark fin trade in a single year. That mountain of fins weighs as much as 2000 African elephants
“There are an estimated 500 species of sharks (some still unnamed) and they roam almost every seascape in the world, from the icy seas of the North Pole to the warm tropical waters of the South Pacific. Sharks come in a variety of shapes and sizes. Around half of all shark species adhere to a very familiar blueprint: metallic gray skin, a prominent dorsal fin, and a jaw equipped with rows of razor-sharp teeth. Defying the stereotype, the other 50 percent of sharks are an outlandish and motley crew. There are sharks with hammer-shape heads; glow-in-the-dark skin; bodies adorned or patterned with frills, tassels, chains, spots, and stripes; and eyes the size of grapefruits.
“The International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN) Shark Specialist Group has assessed the extinction risk of 465 species of sharks, using the IUCN Red List criteria and categories. For half of those, there is not enough information about even the most basic biology and fisheries catches to assess their conservation status. For the remaining species, 11 are classified as critically endangered, 15 are categorized as endangered, 48 are considered vulnerable and 67 are near threatened. Great and scalloped hammerhead sharks are now categorized as globally endangered and many migratory, open-ocean, sharks, like makos, threshers and oceanic whitetips are also at great risk. Scientists, fishermen, and conservationists argue at length about how many sharks are left and how quickly their numbers are declining. However, they rarely dispute the fact that many shark populations around the world are indeed declining at an alarming rate. No species of shark is known to have gone extinct due to human-induced pressure so far, but many species have disappeared from parts of their known range.”
Great hammerhead sharks maneuver with surprising speed and agility. In the Bahamas they seasonally appears off seamounts and on shallow sandbanks. Great Isaac, Bahamas © Thomas P. Peschak