>Lying in water only a foot deep, I watched as the juvenile shark meandered lazily through the mangrove, already exuding the confidence innate to a supreme creature in its domain. It was nearly 100ºF in Bimini, and the mosquitoes were thick and relentless, swarming on any bare skin. Yet by slipping my head only inches below the water's surface, I entered another realm. I was transfixed watching the little sharks, perhaps 12 to 18 inches long, as they swam without effort beneath mangrove roots and over the muddy bottom. It was a shark scene quite unlike any other I had observed before: baby lemon sharks within their mangrove nurseries. It was an experience as fascinating to me as any encounter with mature sharks in open water. As I lay there wearing only a wetsuit, mask and snorkel, I thought about how vital this fragile ecosystem was for sharks and how crucial sharks are to the health of the world's oceans.
>Like many divers, I am under the spell of sharks, wanting to spend time with them whenever possible and never tiring of their special blend of grace and power. Even these tiny lemon pups, only a few months old, possessed that blend. I was utterly content lying in that shallow water for hours on end, just watching them move. I couldn't help but think back to my first shark encounters, nearly 30 years ago in the waters off New England. Those were exhilarating days of high anticipation as I steamed offshore and spent hours drifting in the chilly water, watching stunning indigo blue sharks nosing through the slick. Experiencing one-on-one encounters with those blues had me hooked, and like an addict, I wanted more. As the voyage of my career got underway, I steered it towards sharks as often as I could.
>As the years progressed, the primary emotion I felt for sharks morphed from excitement to concern. It was becoming evident that sharks were in serious trouble worldwide. In nearly every location I worked, I heard the same thing: "You should have been here a few years ago when we used to see so many more sharks." It was easy to believe; I was seeing the decline myself. There were fewer sharks in the places I once saw many and it was taking much longer to find those that remained. It began to feel like a race against time; traveling the globe to take pictures of animals I feared might not be there if I waited too long.
>In 2004 and 2005, I proposed two stories to my editor at National Geographic magazine, stories I hoped would shed light on problems occurring in Earth's oceans and show readers the magnificence of the marine wildlife we need to protect. The first story was to be a feature on the Global Fish Crisis, which would look at the problems of overfishing, a substantial component of which was the shark fishery. I wanted to approach this story like a war photographer, making images of things few had seen before, from the methods used to catch fish (like gillnets and longlines) to the destructive practices that accompany many such methods such as by-catch and shark finning.
>I wanted the second story to be a celebratory piece about sharks, with pictures that brought readers into the sea for an intimate look at these misunderstood animals. Despite the affection many divers have for these animals, sharks are being slaughtered at alarming rates and little is being done to stem the tide. National Geographic speaks to a much broader audience than only divers; I wanted as many people as possible to grasp the horrible reality that more than 100 million sharks are being killed each year, and this is having dire consequences on the overall health of the world's oceans.
>The combination of great natural geography and government protection was delivering great results. My friend, Jim Abernethy, had also discovered new locations for species that were of great interest to me, and predictability in finding such animals is a big plus in terms of my fieldwork. With the story approved, I returned to the Bahamas to spend about 10 weeks in the company of sharks.
>While working on my shark assignment a few years ago, I learned from Jimmy Abernethy that sport fishermen were spotting oceanic whitetip sharks in the central Bahamas. Stories were told of fishermen reeling in yellowfin tuna while oceanic whitetips took the fish off their lines. This species of shark was once commonly seen offshore in the Bahamas, but I hadn't heard of anyone seeing one underwater in decades.
>This likely had to do with the fact that oceanic whitetips had declined worldwide by 98 percent. They were highly prized for their large fins and had been decimated by longlining in pelagic waters around the planet. But with the Bahamian "fish tales" in my ears and an optimistic spirit, I headed off with Jim and shark biologist Wes Pratt for a 16-day, highly-speculative voyage.
>Because we would be working in the water column and not on the bottom, I brought along a shark cage as a safe haven in case we needed it. We spent day after day cruising, diving and searching with no luck. Then one afternoon, we struck gold. It was late in the day; we had positioned our boat over a bank and throttled back the engine when a large dorsal appeared off our stern. It was splashed with white.
>I flew from the wheelhouse down to the deck, suited up as quickly as possible and slid into the crystal-blue water. Grabbing my housing from my assistant, Mark, I swam off to find the shark, knowing that Jim would soon be in the water as well. She materialized at a distance, a female oceanic whitetip about nine feet long, and she moved directly toward me. She reached me in seconds and was highly curious, bouncing her nose off my dome port repeatedly. I made a series of pictures, my heart excitedly racing all the while. I remembered the shark cage and Pratt back on board, and I wanted to get both into the water. Jimmy and I climbed back on the boat and quickly prepped the cage. We lowered it into the sea, where it glowed vibrantly against the deep, blue, featureless void.
>The shark eventually settled into swimming large, lazy circles around the three of us in our cage, often moving in close to check us out, then returning to her orbital path. In the late afternoon light, she was absolutely stunning with her long pectorals and golden colored back. Light levels slowly dropped and reluctantly we exited the water, leaving our spectacular oceanic whitetip to her journeys as we steamed for port.
>© Alert Diver — Fall 2010