• November 4, 2014

Sharks and Ladders: A Photographer Gets a Lift

A few years ago Thomas Peschak’s photo editors at National Geographic, Kathy Moran and David Griffin, told him that in order to get more original perspectives he should stop using his zoom lens so much, and instead just move himself.

He took the advice to heart, knowing that the distinction between a great picture and a National Geographic picture can be a matter of centimeters.

“I now climb trees, I climb buildings, I even climb on tables and chairs. Sometimes getting a different angle makes all the difference,” he says.

So on his recent assignment to the very flat Aldabra atoll to photograph the remarkable recovery of various species, from giant tortoises to sharks, he made sure to carry a ladder to gain elevation. (Well, actually his assistants carried it…)

Picture of: Thomas Peschak's assistants
Thomas Peschak’s assistants, Steve Benjamin (foreground) and Otto Whitehead, carry equipment, including the ladder, while hiking to their camp on Aldabra’s Grande Terre island.
Photograph by Thomas P. Peschak

“I really love getting in close with a wide angle lens to give readers an intimate experience, but the closer you get the more you lose the context of the surrounding landscape” he says.

Peschak originally thought he’d use the ladder to make pictures of grazing giant tortoise herds, but instead it came in more useful while photographing the atoll’s schools of blacktip reef sharks.

At low tide the sharks congregate in a small lagoon on a reef flat in front of the island’s research station, where a brisk current bathes them in cooler and well oxygenated water. They avoid the deeper water off the reef edge where bigger sharks may prey on them.

Picture of: Blacktip reef sharks
A blacktip reef shark swims across the tidal flat in the front of Aldabra’s research station. This photograph was taken without the ladder, while sitting low in the water.
Photograph by Thomas P. Peschak

“Aldabra has the highest concentration of blacktip reef sharks I have ever experienced,” says Peschak. “The sheer abundance there is completely insane.”

Aldabra atoll is a group of four small islands in the Indian Ocean, and is part of the Seychelles archipelago. All commercial and recreational fishing is prohibited there, but a small weekly subsistence harvest to feed scientists and rangers at its remote field station is exempt. Because the catch used to be cleaned in front of the station the sharks still get excited by the sound of human footsteps, thinking there’s a meal on the way.

Peschak says it looks like a feeding frenzy, but it’s simply more of a Pavlovian response. Today the fish waste is composted on land, but somehow the sharks still remember the “good old days.”

“After they realize I’m not offering anything to eat they get bored and quickly go back to what they were doing,” he says.

Watch a timelapse of Thomas Peschak using a ladder to photograph blacktip reef sharks.

This low-tide gathering proved to be the perfect place for Peschak to put the stepladder into action— he simply waded out into the water, and plunked it down in the midst of the school of sharks.

“The ladder was a really inexpensive way to get an aerial-like perspective,” says Peschak. “It created an image that simply wouldn’t have been as interesting or unique without it.”

A photo posted by National Geographic (@natgeo) on

Peschak’s photographs taken with the ladder will be published in a 2016 National Geographic story about marine and terrestrial resurrection in The Seychelles.


Read the other stories in this series:
• Photographing on an Island that Wants to Kills You
• All You Need to Pack for a Remote Atoll Is…
• Getting By With a Little Help from his Friends

Next week on Proof: Learn how Peschak relied on his assistants and a team of scientists and rangers to make this assignment possible.

Thomas Peschak would like to extend a very special thank you to the Seychelles Island Foundation and the amazing staff at the Aldabra research station for making this visit possible. Thanks also to Steve Benjamin and Otto Whitehead for lugging “the ladder” and hundreds of pounds of equipment through Aldabra’s hostile wilderness.

There are 33 Comments. Add Yours.

  1. Jan Bokdam
    May 24, 2016

    Beautiful pictures (as usual)…..
    Please continue to do so!

  2. Richard Cornell
    November 29, 2014

    An awesome contribution allowing us to see your chosen world in a unique and informational way. While filming in Kenya in 1967 I ventured out to the Indian Ocean but it was dark and we who were swimming did so with caution! No ladders, no light, just fright! ^_^

  3. Bijan Mohammadi
    November 21, 2014

    خیلی زیبا است nice

  4. Maotwe Lucas
    November 16, 2014

    What a nice picture, makes you feel refreshed

  5. Mike Walling
    November 16, 2014

    Might I recommend a three legged ladder? They work better on un-even terrain. That being said the idea of adding a ladder to your equipment pile is brilliant and I shall consider it in the future.

  6. Diane
    November 16, 2014

    Beautiful pictures. ..Looks like your having fun in the process too!

  7. Suzi
    November 10, 2014

    Thank you for these pics of the world as seen through your camera lens. Stunning!

  8. andy pike
    November 10, 2014

    Blinding pic’s, , stunning. ..

  9. mivius rull
    November 10, 2014


  10. Maria Elena Gómez Alonso
    November 10, 2014

    Genial. Con un cambio en la perspectiva todo se ve diferente. Maravilloso!!!!

  11. Mohamud
    November 10, 2014

    I like national geographic amazing photo

  12. George Blades
    November 9, 2014

    What an amazing world we live in, thanks to guys like you who bring it closer to us

  13. hamid reza mohammadi
    November 9, 2014

    بسیار زیبا و درس آموز

  14. Arun
    November 9, 2014

    Good example of changing view to add interest

  15. Dipanjan Mitra
    November 9, 2014

    The ladder is very pretty and looks really handy. Indeed, how little elevation can change the whole perspective and angle. Thanks Nat Geo.

  16. PJ
    November 9, 2014

    what a wonderful way to show the world the magic of life

  17. Diana Calleja
    November 9, 2014

    Thank you for sharing

  18. abdulsacoor
    November 9, 2014


  19. Maria Cristina Nunes de Souza
    November 9, 2014

    Amazing photos!!!

  20. Trupti
    November 7, 2014


  21. Rashid Mukoon
    November 7, 2014

    wonderful images,wish to be there.

  22. Sandra Manegre
    November 6, 2014

    Thanks National Geographic to show the true nature of sharks.

  23. maleha
    November 6, 2014

    Great, thank you.

  24. adriana milena
    November 5, 2014

    Rico para las personas que captaron ese instante

  25. Ngatia M
    November 5, 2014

    Are they not interested in biting! cool pics , i guess better ones are the ones taken from the ladder

  26. fish warwick
    November 5, 2014

    favorite stop for the greatest undersea exployer and crew!!!!

  27. Purwasasmita
    November 5, 2014

    Real photografer!

  28. Cleeve Robertson
    November 5, 2014

    Great pictures! Sad we can never go there! I dived at Bassas Da India in the 90s when fish populations were pristine. Sadly that’s changed, we are a very destructive human race!

  29. karla
    November 4, 2014

    Omg a dream come true

  30. Elena Olvido
    November 4, 2014

    I really love reading National Geographics because nothing
    compares to it.

  31. Douglas Croft
    November 4, 2014

    am I missing something. The article talks about using the ladder to get better pictures but the only picture shown is without the ladder?

  32. Nancy Rose
    November 4, 2014

    this is really cool! I assume those sharks are not interested in eating feet?

  33. F.Santos
    November 4, 2014

    I would have taken a tree, maybe the sharks know how to climb stairs, we never know… it was an excellent idea, a ladder, everything that is not at the level of our eyes always has a good, different and interesting perspective.

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