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  • November 27, 2013

Thomas P. Peschak: Swimming With Sharks

A few weeks ago photographer Thomas P. Peschak stopped by the National Geographic offices to show work from his upcoming story on South African marine reserves. Peschak, who studied marine biology, is passionate about conservation, and once we started talking about his work, I could barely get him to stop.

One arresting image from his project is an underwater silhouette of a surfer and a shark swimming side-by-side. Of course I wanted to know: “How the heck did you do that?” The answer, of course, is complex.

“I didn’t want to create an image that conveyed conflict. I wanted to illustrate the reality and the menace that surfers feel—the yin and the yang of the beautiful shapes.”
—Thomas P. Peschak

Peschak knows the ocean intimately, and says he can read shark behavior just as easily as the average person can tell the difference between a poodle wagging its tail and a Rottweiler menacing its teeth. Peschak says it’s the same with sharks.

“They are not dangerous animals,” he says of the blacktip sharks in these photos. “They are powerful, you have to be respectful, and you have to know what you are doing. It comes from putting in the time in the water, watching them, knowing them. If you don’t know what you are doing, that’s when you get into trouble.”

A blacktip shark inspects a surfer paddling on a prototype surfboard fitted with a electronic shark deterrent built into its underside. The electronic shield was switched off during the test and the sharks approached closely. When a shark swims into an electrical field, it is thought its 'ampullae of Lorenzini'—organs that detect weak electromagnetic fields—are overstimulated, causing uncomfortable muscles spasms.
A blacktip shark inspects a surfer paddling on a prototype surfboard fitted with a electronic shark deterrent built into its underside. The electronic shield was switched off during the test and the sharks approached closely. When a shark swims into an electrical field, it is thought its ‘ampullae of Lorenzini’—organs that detect weak electromagnetic fields—are overstimulated, causing uncomfortable muscles spasms. Thomas P. Peschak

In these photos, surfers test a prototype of a shark-resistant surfboard under baited conditions off the KwaZulu-Natal coast in South Africa. A device in the board sends out an electromagnetic field to bother the sharks and keep them away. While not yet in mass production, Peschak says the concept shows that people are thinking beyond killing sharks—and instead are looking for ways to co-exist.

Perhaps one of the most surprising things about Peschak’s method is that he doesn’t use any SCUBA gear—instead, he free-dives with only a mask, snorkel, fins, and a weight belt—holding his breath for a few minutes at a time. He says it gives him greater mobility in the water, and allows him to work for longer periods of time. It also makes him seem less threatening to the wildlife.

Peschak also pre-visualize images before he dives, sometimes even sketching them out in advance so he knows what to shoot once he’s in the water.

“One of the things people forget is the amount of time and research that goes into taking pictures,” says Peschak. “Once you are in the water it’s just waiting for it to happen. You know it’s going to happen because you’ve done your homework. One of the secrets is curiosity—speak to people, become a sponge, and make smart decisions about where and what to photograph.”

Thomas P. Peschak’s book Sharks and People was published by the University of Chicago Press in August. You can also see more of his work on his website.

There are 46 Comments. Add Yours.

  1. Candace
    November 12, 2014

    Excellent

  2. Rex Swindle
    November 2, 2014

    I put over 20 yrs. in the US Navy;( Was a SCUBA diver at one time ). DON’T play in salt water !!!

  3. Rj
    November 2, 2014

    The only thing worse than a hungry Tiger Shark, Surfboard and Surfer is a very hungry Tiger Shark, Boogy Board and Boogy Boarder …

  4. Liahona
    October 7, 2014

    This is amazing man, but, what effects does it have on the sharks though?

  5. tom Antalek
    September 22, 2014

    I am a surfer in Volusia County Florida.they call this the shark bite capital of the world.I am also a surfer and I coexist with the sharks as well as my fellow surfers. swimming and or surfing in an area where sharks are obviously feeding is not a good idea.birds over the water bait fish in the area all big signs.I have been bitten once by a 3-foot Sand Shark.we swam together in a wave and accidentally bumped into each other that’s the only reason it bit me, an accident.beautiful photos thank you for sharing sometimes you just have to let Mother Nature be Mother Nature and just enjoy her beauty.

  6. Shaun moton
    August 15, 2014

    I like what you write it is amazing

  7. Celeste Bleeker
    August 13, 2014

    That is really neat! But I don’t think I will be doing that any time soon.

  8. Ara
    August 12, 2014

    Where did you get that courage, man?
    Simply amazing…Fan-freaking-tastic

  9. raja sunil
    August 12, 2014

    its seems like your very passionate,anyways whats the device , inorder to keep sharks away from us?

  10. Rez
    August 12, 2014

    Deeper perspective views of commonly thought of shallow cold killers, great job (and courage)

  11. Alexandre
    August 12, 2014

    Good initiative and a lot of courage. Congratulations on your work the images are very beautiful as well as the info is important. Hope your device helps avoid accidents and killings.

  12. sudheer golla
    July 31, 2014

    exlent

  13. choc lab dad
    July 16, 2014

    I love it. Anything that shows people that sharks aren’t mindless eating animals is key in my book. The shot from below is outstanding. Great work.

  14. tutty
    July 11, 2014

    Amazing. I wonder, how would possible he did that.

  15. Raj A. Wavdankar
    June 5, 2014

    shark.. one of the big predators..! saving them means we are automatically saving the rest in the food chane.. great.. well thankyou for doing it..! :)

  16. celista dorsey
    April 16, 2014

    that’s just wow but son how is it possible that the sharks didn’t eat him or something but ik I wouldn’t be swimming with no dang sharks , they’ll tear my skin alive and I love my life and ik that sharks are cute but you don’t know hwere they go be at by yoiu

  17. Kieran Gregory
    April 7, 2014

    Amazing read and pictures too match!

  18. Classy
    March 25, 2014

    It’s wonderful

  19. Manahara
    January 3, 2014

    Amazing

  20. Sue Parmenter
    December 10, 2013

    Anything that protects surfers (even by a percentage) and keeps sharks from hurting them will help protect sharks. I think those taking part in the baited trial are v brave. You wouldn’t get me doing it!

  21. John Drummond
    December 7, 2013

    Building knowledge about sharks is important. I love nature photography and appreciate everything that goes into it. But to suggest blacktip sharks aren’t dangerous is naïve at best an irresponsible at worst. Ask Steve Irwin’s widow if sting rays are dangerous. Ask the shark “expert” who kissed a “harmless” nurse shark and almost lost his mouth. (It’s on YouTube.) We need to protect nature but never lose respect for it.

  22. Ricardo Alexandre
    December 6, 2013

    Fabulous I love your work fantastic pictures. I”m a photographer my dream are work at National Geographic

  23. Andrewilliam
    December 4, 2013

    Beautiful images and important to gather information on these amazing creatures for both their and our future benefit. However, I do agree that wild animals are wild and it is a tad fool hardy to suggest they are not dangerous just misunderstood. The recent doc re “trained” orca whales and their murderous behaviour to their keepers, albeit in captivity reminds me that any human contact with wild animals is an imposition for them unless you intend to let them eat you or you’re conducting some activity that warrants contact for the sake of their “best interests”.

  24. Daniel
    December 2, 2013

    CORALGUARDIAN those are blacktips…

  25. Mauricio Torres
    December 2, 2013

    Excelent…..Great I like the pictures show more please ….

  26. deforge
    December 1, 2013

    BEAUTIFUL, eachone who hates sharks has to watch this! mahalo!

  27. Kara Mogavero
    December 1, 2013

    I disagree with his comment about sharks not being dangerous. All animals are dangerous. One of my cats will shred your skin if you touch him in the wrong spot!!! Wild animals are especially dangerous. It is my belief that when a person starts to think a wild animal is not dangerous or that they can “read” an animals body language that they get hurt. Look at all the animal experts that have been killed by the animals they thought were their “friends”. Do I respect him? Yes. Do I appreciate his efforts for conservation and methods for studying them? Absolutely!!! Am I afraid for his safety? You bet I am!!!

  28. Michael Quill
    December 1, 2013

    you are amazeing.I like the surfboard with electronic shark scare

  29. Cherilyn Royall
    December 1, 2013

    Courageous outstanding people who do this sort of work, we all enjoy their work so much, I know. I do, anything from the underwater world is so fascinating, keep up the good work for all the world to see.

  30. Mel jenson
    November 30, 2013

    Inspiring. We’ve just had two fatal attacks in Australia and now the West Australian Government is talking about culling sharks there. A lot are great whites. A sad, knee-jerk reaction. Must we humans rule everything with blind force?

  31. Liliana Torres
    November 30, 2013

    Espectacular, quisiera saber mas de esto y como puedo leer todo en español. Me encantan los animales.

  32. mushtaq ahmad
    November 30, 2013

    very intresting

  33. mushtaq ahmad
    November 30, 2013

    beautifull ticx

  34. mushtaq ahmad
    November 30, 2013

    thanks once again

  35. Lalo Zaragoza
    November 29, 2013

    Good article, you can always learn something new nature, in this case about sharks.

  36. Ali
    November 29, 2013

    Amazing . very good

  37. William Tait
    November 28, 2013

    I have personally met someone who was a commando. Commandos in the British army where trained to swim with sharks in world war 2.
    He told me if he was attacked by a shark he was told to stab it in the eye.

  38. Fernando Garcia
    November 28, 2013

    Amazing!! And also makes a good practical point: Do your homework, learn how it works, be aware of what’s going on! Very good read.

  39. Paul
    November 28, 2013

    Fantastic post. Really appreciated Thomas’s comments around planning your photography. Great advice.

  40. Maree Lock
    November 28, 2013

    Mutual respect between humans and creatures of any kind is a thing of intense beauty. Thank you for this uplifting, practical and sensible article.

  41. CORALGUARDIAN
    November 28, 2013

    Its not blacktips, its bull sharks…

  42. Cayla Dengate
    November 28, 2013

    Stunning image – would love to know what camera he used.

  43. Niranjan
    November 27, 2013

    Is working with sharks very dificult
    Nice picture you have click
    Thanks

  44. ggn
    November 27, 2013

    Amazing

  45. Rebecca
    November 27, 2013

    Absolutely beautiful. What an amazing man

  46. laurence PERRIN
    November 27, 2013

    amazing, intersting , great

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