Basking Shark Photography
Text and Underwater Photography by Kirk Mottershead
It is not possible to free dive with basking sharks'. That is what I had been told. I was about to find out differently.
Where to dive with basking sharks
The encounter I had in June 2010 at Porthcurno in Cornwall, England definitely broke this rule. The shark circled, feeding for over two and half hours and didn’t seem in the least bit interested in me nor the fact that it was in shallow water.
Basking shark feeding underwater
Basking Shark Behaviour
After the shark had passed me several times I decided to chance my luck and free dive alongside it to get a different viewpoint. The shark remained completely unflustered and swam so close to me whilst it passed, its tail brushed past my mask.
It continued to circle the bay and I shot the shark from the bottom perhaps a dozen times. The sharks are so intent on feeding that as they swim through the plankton bloom they will pass within 1 meter of you, only changing direction at the very last moment. To see such a huge creature swimming towards you with its mouth open feeding is a truly awesome spectacle!
I have been photographing basking sharks for several years around the UK (particularly around the Isle of Man and Cornwall) where their numbers have been slowly increasing due to a fishing ban 40 years ago, when their numbers were decimated. The issue is their slow reproductive rate like so many other shark species and subsequently a slow recovery time.
Basking sharks live in temperate and arctic waters throughout the world’s oceans. They are the second largest fish dwarfed only by its warm water relative the whale shark. The basking shark is a gentle giant growing easily up to 10m and at that size the dorsal fin will be an impressive 2m tall. They filter feed on the explosion of plankton at the surface during the summer months. Although the migration pattern of basking sharks is not fully understood, in the UK they appear first in the SW of England in May. The majority then head north before dispersing from the west coast of Scotland into deeper water in August.
How to photograph basking sharks
Getting the best angles
Plankton blooms do not have the greatest visibility which stands to reason! So it is a matter of spending time photographing basking sharks to capture them feeding with good visibility and great light. The best way to photograph basking sharks is whilst snorkelling; scuba equipment is too slow and noisy. The water temperature got up to 17 degrees Celsius in June in the UK so a good wet suit is the way forward. I use a 5mm suit and free diving fins which allow easy movement in the water. I weight myself to enable me to free dive should the opportunity arise.
Basking sharks feed in an apparently random fashion, although when you understand them it is determined by the size and shape of the plankton bloom. You have to predict which direction they are heading in order go to get close enough, then keep very still as they pass by.
Occasionally the shark will swim in circles whilst feeding and therefore keep swimming past you, allowing for a truly fantastic experience and photographic opportunity. Having a knowledgeable skipper to find the sharks and then to put you into the water in the correct place is without question invaluable.
Underwater Camera settings and care
My camera of choice is the Canon 5D MKII with a 17-40mm 4 L lens in a Hugyfot housing with a super wide port. I kept my lens set to 17mm for the entire series of the images which gives you an idea of how close I was to the basking sharks. I used a minimum aperture of f10 to improve the saturation of colours in the water and for rays of light to appear defined.
Looking after underwater photographic equipment always requires a lot of effort, working from an inflatable boat for the day it becomes more of a task. It is worth taking plenty of fresh water to rinse your equipment throughout the day to prevent salt deposits building up on your port and around the controls. Here you can read more about underwater camera maintenance.
A simple plastic box with padding to protect your camera whilst moving is useful and a towel to shade it from the sun helps to keep the camera temperature down.
Snorkelling with basking sharks is an awesome experience. Being in the water so close to such a huge animal, it commands 100% respect from the diver. If the numbers continue to increase around the UK then basking sharks will become synonymous with our coastline. This would give us a great opportunity to enjoy a harmonious relationship with an incredible ocean giant. Perhaps by sharing our appreciation of this creature and indeed its economic value to tourism we can start to change the perception of sharks throughout the world.
Kirk Mottershead is a Zoologist, professional photographer and PADI Master Scuba Diver Trainer based in Manchester, England. He is the director of a professional portrait studio,
Benchmark Photography and leads diving and wildlife photography tours throughout the world.
If you would like to see more of Kirk’s work or are interested in having an encounter with basking sharks, please visit kirkmottershead.com