By William Buchheit
I’ll never forget the first time I saw a great white shark in person. It was a brisk morning in November 2006 and the sun splintered the Pacific like a million shards of sky-colored glass. I was standing aboard an old boat called The Searcher, 170 miles from the closest North American shore. We were anchored near Guadalupe Island, a foreboding mass of volcanic rock that protrudes from the sea like the skeleton of some long-forgotten giant.
It was that morning that I finally saw the unmistakable torpedo-shaped shadow gliding just below the surface in our direction. Roughly 50 feet from the vessel, the animal gained steam and charged the tuna head dangling invitingly on a rope tied to a buoy. Everyone on board watched as the juvenile predator lunged sideways out of the water with its trademark jaws, flashing its majestic ivory belly before tumbling back into the sea.
That trip to Guadalupe marked my first successful shark adventure. For three gleeful days, I observed and photographed over a dozen great whites, both from the boat and from the man-made shelter of a titanium shark cage. In the years since, I’ve gone on six more vacations to see them. Four of those were to South Africa, a place known to have the highest concentration of the animals in the world. The best of those trips came in 2012 when I ventured to False Bay to photograph South Africa’s famous flying sharks.
In the late 1990s, shark researchers Chris Fallows and Rob Lawrence took an inflatable boat into the bay and stopped the motor close to Seal Island, a mound of sand and rock five miles offshore that’s home to 70,000 cape fur seals. There they watched as great whites ambushed young seals from the depths, launching themselves through the waves and completely into the air trying to catch their prey. They realized immediately what they were seeing — a dance of death that can be witnessed only one place in the world.
For kicks, Fallows and Lawrence tied some fishing line to a life jacket and hoisted it into the sea. When they began towing it slowly around Seal Island, a great white drilled the floating jacket at full speed, its momentum carrying its massive body fully out of the water. The legend of False Bay’s flying sharks was born.
A year later, Fallows and Lawrence launched their own shark-tourism operation in Simonstown, the naval village just below the coastal metropolis of Cape Town. And the rest, as they say, is history. In only a few years, Fallows became the most famous great white advocate and photographer in the world. He collaborated with the Discovery Channel to produce its famous “Air Jaws” shows, which captivated millions during Discovery’s Shark Week and attracted droves of international tourists to False Bay to see the spectacle for themselves.
In August of 2012, I was on Fallows’ boat when I witnessed and photographed the most extraordinary hunting event I’ve ever seen. After getting a glimpse of frantic splashing in the distance, Fallows gunned his motor and blistered us towards the scene. We arrived to see a juvenile seal leaping several feet into the air, a shiny brown blur of fur and fear. For several seconds, the shark remained unseen, an invisible monster whirling below the ocean foam. Then the 12-foot beast lunged for its prey at a 45-degree angle, his mouth a snarling mass of ivory teeth and rosy gums. He missed the seal by over a second, chomping at the salty sea air as if posing for an action picture. The pup vanished then resurfaced unscathed as his attacker splashed clumsily back into the sea.
I clicked off 20 frames in about three seconds, the gasps of my crewmates audible over the machine-gun shutter of my camera. A moment later, the white beast launched itself once more from the depths, this time with the doomed seal pup thrashing around inside its vice-like jaws. I clenched my teeth and held the shutter down again, its machine-gun firing joining Fallow’s camera in an angelic chorus.
That photo remains the most fortunate and riveting wildlife shot I’ve ever captured, and I never dreamed I’d get so lucky again. But on my third trip to Guadalupe a few weeks ago, I got a shot that was just as lucky. On a clear chilly morning very reminiscent of the one I described at the beginning of this story, I decided I’d forego my first rotation in the shark cage in order to shoot some pictures from the back of the boat.
The sharks at Guadalupe are not known for breaching out of the water, and if they do break the surface while going for the bait, the only image you usually end up with is a lot of ocean spray and a blurry, barely detectable animal. After many failed attempts to capture anything different, I decided I’d try to get the silhouette of a fin with the majestic island in the backdrop. The lighting was perfect, with the sun still hovering just above the eastern horizon. I positioned myself on my knees on the platform at the very back of the boat, just behind the cages and only three feet above the glassy blue surface of the ocean. Once I got the silhouette I was looking for, I contorted my body even lower and aimed my zoom lens at the buoy forty feet in front of me, hoping somehow something out of the ordinary might happen.
The eight divers down in the two cages must have seen the shark rocket up from the depths but we on the boat were given no warning. I still don’t know if I detected some faint stirring in the water or acted on some strange impulse, but I fired the shutter and held it down as the animal exploded out of the sea with the tuna bait in her mouth. Everyone shrieked and cursed in collective excitement just as she plunged back into the water, leaving nothing but ripples in her wake.
I climbed back aboard the boat and reviewed the sequence on my camera’s 3.5 inch LCD screen, happy I’d captured eight sharp frames of the whole thing with the majestic island in the background. It was satisfying work considering the event had lasted no more than a second. However, I didn’t think anymore about the shots until nearly a full week later. I was sitting in my Greer office, reviewing the sequence on my computer monitor when I realized I’d caught something magical. One of the shark’s upper teeth, stark white and perfectly triangular, had flown out at the moment she chomped the bait. The pictures revealed it frozen in air halfway between her eye and mouth.
That afternoon, I celebrated like a man who’d just won the state lottery, printing out a photo and showing it to every startled stranger I came across. A google search revealed that only two photographers in history had caught a great white’s tooth in midair, and they’d done it in South Africa from a distance of well over 100 feet. In contrast, I had been so close to the shark I could have hit her with a basketball chest pass. It’s been nearly a month now since that amazing discovery, and the buzz of that afternoon has long since dwindled. But the photographs I captured that cold Autumn morning at Guadalupe will always serve to remind me that a truly magical photograph really could be just a click away.