With all the shark attacks this summer, it’s hard to imagine slipping off the safety of a boat and descending in to the blue unknown intentionally seeking them out in their natural habitat, mano-e-mano.
But that’s just what National Geographic photographer Andy Mann has started to do. After cutting his teeth shooting adventure sports like climbing, a couple years ago he was given the chance to go swim with the fishes—the big ones—and he jumped at it. Now, with loads of face to face time logged with all manner of sharks, his tale of the creatures in their natural environment is completely different from what you’d expect after reading headlines or watching the sensationalized for TV Shark Week.
We caught up with Andy while he was spending some time on dry land to find out what it’s really like to put yourself squarely in the way of hundred or thousands of pounds of toothy eating machine.
I always had a fascination with sharks. Then I had an opportunity to do an expedition in Fiji to study and dive with sharks. I was excited, said “of course I’d swim with sharks,” and went and got certified after that. My first open water dive was with fifty big bull sharks. So the bar was set kinda high right off the bat.
There’s a lot of hesitation leading up to your first shark dive. Just based on the general knowledge of sharks attacking humans, it’s like, “should I be doing this? Is this risky?” Yet – and this goes for everyone I’ve talked to who has experience diving with sharks – it is incredibly calming right off the bat. As soon as you get down there, they’re so slow and gentle that excitement takes over, the joy of experiencing this.
It’s a calmness. A calmness that I dream about. I’ve heard that from other people too, you swim with sharks and then for weeks it’s in your dreams. They’re calm, gentle, slow and methodical, graceful. As soon as you come up you just want to go back down and experience it again. It’s like a drug.
As a photographer, I want them to come close. Generally, you have a wide angle lens on and anything that’s six feet away looks twenty-five feet away. It’s more difficult on organized commercial shark dives because you’re lined up behind some safety divers, and there’s a shark feeder, and the shot is generally of the person feeding the shark. That’s not something that I even care to have a photo of. I want to experience them on my own terms. And when you do it’s a whole different interaction, you feel like you’re on their turf. It’s never the same interaction, and it never feels canned.
It doesn’t ever seem like any reason to panic. Their approaches are slow. I do feel a barrier with my camera, so I’m always focused on getting the shot, ‘please come closer, please come closer.’ Generally I’m just still. I hold my breath because the bubbles will freak them, and I get in the zone and it’s amazing. The shark is coming at you super slowly, its mouth isn’t open; it’s not like its pectoral fins are down and it’s kicking at you, or looking aggressive. It’s generally just curious.
I feel like on a deep level humans recognize that as soon as they see it, that deep aggression. I’ve gotten out of the water with a shark after reading its behavior. When I realize I don’t have complete control. And when I say ‘complete control’ I mean like when you sit down at a bar, and there’s that dude, you can tell from the way he’s behaving and he speaks to you that you don’t want to sit next to him. So you can either sit next to him and drink anyway, and then if he punches you in the face, well, you probably knew better. You gotta have control. You can read that in dogs, too, they’re the same way. And sharks are even more enhanced than that, because I think you’re more receptive to it. It’s one thing to read a dog that comes up to you when you’re not ready, but if you’re gonna go in a cage with a dog, you’re 99 percent focused on that interaction and behavior.
I got out of the water with a shark in the Bahamas this year. It was an oceanic white tipped shark. She would come in, it was a pregnant female, the same one that bumped my camera:
She would put her nose against my camera port, and then I’d gently glide her nose away from it. You never swat a shark, because they hate that, and the interaction is gonna change. Not because they’ll become aggressive, but they’ll go away and won’t come back and hang out with you. And that’s what you want. I’ve pushed a shark, and if it keeps coming back, that feels like the guy at the bar, in the early stages. I was like, ‘I’m getting out.’ And that same shark, twenty minutes later we were back in the water with her, and she turned out to be more curious than anything. I just don’t take those risks. When you’re a surfer or a swimmer you don’t get to make those decisions. But when you have options, I’m always gonna err on the side of caution.
I think it’s really unfortunate that people have been injured, seriously injured, but it’s like, you’ve got to let a shark be a shark. We don’t treat grizzly bears the same way. I read an essay about how when you go into the Alaskan wilderness, you’re prepared for that encounter. And if you’re too scared, you’re not going. And even if there’s an attack, the bears are still protected. The sharks have a hell of a lot more right to be here than a car or a handgun. You’ve just got to let a shark be a shark, its part of the ticket you drew when you came on planet earth, you know?
Sharks seem to cohabitate really well. I was shooting on this island and there’s a little marina and the fishermen clean their carcasses and throw them off into this little channel. It’s like 4-10 feet deep, and the sharks come in, there’s a ton of them, and there’s totally a hierarchy of behavior. There’s these little docile nurse sharks that are just there, and then these Caribbean reef sharks and lemon sharks would come, and they’d all be together with no problem. Then a tiger shark, even if it was as small one, would just come straight in and would take over. It was respected. The other sharks were like, ‘I’m not gonna fuck with a tiger shark,’ you know?
It’s amazing to see a shark in the water. I don’t think there’s anything more cool than that at all. Especially when you’re out there and there’s not one. You look 360 degrees: under you, over you, left and right, and if you have a few other divers you also always look at them. There’s this universal signal where you put the palm of your hand on your head like a dorsal fin and then point, and I love seeing that, when someone else points it out, ‘shark, there,’ and you turn around and its just coming in so slow, and you’re just in total awe.
All that great white footage, they’re throwing out bait and pulling it away from them. People want great whites to be like Jaws with their teeth above the water. The shot people want is with the mouth open and teeth. And that’s a huge misconception, but those are the ones people want to get and share. But man, especially the great white ones like that, it’s so fucking tired. I’ve never, ever seen a sharks tooth outside of a feeding situation.