A BIG SMILE FOR THE CAMERA

THE BROADER PICTURE
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The Independent Culture
THERE ARE easier ways to earn a living than photographing fish, and easier fish to photograph than the whale-shark (Rhinodon typicus). Unlike other members of the shark family, whale-sharks are not in the habit of attacking or eating human beings, but that is about all that they have to recommend them. They are, for example, inordinately large, reaching up to 18 metres in length and weighing up to 40 tons. This creates problems of scale that would be daunting even with an inanimate subject on dry land, let alone in the dark depths of the Indian Ocean. Then there is the problem of finding the creatures. As well as being the biggest fish in the sea, whale- sharks are among the most elusive. Little is known about their migratory patterns, and apart from a brief period in March and April, when dozens of them converge on Ningaloo Reef off Western Australia to feed on the zooplankton there, it is hard to know where to begin looking for them. Even when you have located the right general area, they are shy and retiring, often skulking up to 100 metres beneath the surface.

For 45-year-old Jeffrey L. Rotman, such difficulties are all in a day's work. Arguably the world's leading marine photographer, he has been photographing marine life for the past 20 years - and pursuing whale-sharks for the past two. His efforts were initially part of a wider project on sharks, but the quest for a photograph of a whale-shark soon became an overriding objective. "Like the great white shark," he says, "the whale-shark held an almost mythic presence in my mind. I needed an encounter with this fish."

Eventually, helped by a local naturalist with a spotter plane, Rotman tracked down some whale-sharks off Ningaloo and spent several days diving among them. Even then, patience was required: despite their size, whale- sharks are timid. But "the larger sharks seemed less disturbed by my presence", and every now and then one stayed in camera-shot long enough to produce a picture. The specimen shown here was around 11m long and probably weighed around 11 tons. Despite its imposing jaws, it will rarely eat anything larger than plankton (or perhaps the occasional anchovy), and it uses its 300 rows of teeth to sieve rather than chew its food. The main hazard for a photographer is its bulk: the taking of the picture on the right could have been followed by a dangerous head-on collision had the fish not changed direction at the very last second.

After a few days' diving, Rotman found that some of the whale-sharks "actually seemed to enjoy being stroked and touched", which may say as much about him as about them. In the small pond of marine photography, Jeffrey L. Rotman is a big fish. Perhaps, in the whale-shark, he has found a kindred spirit. !

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