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Shark: The deep

Coming eyeball to eyeball with a great white, or swimming with hungry hammerheads is all in a day's work for the chainmail- wearing photographer Jeffrey L Rotman. Here, he explains his 25-year-long mission to capture the perfect shark picture
hen people find out that I am an underwater photographer, they inevitably ask, "How do you avoid sharks?" My answer: "Jump in the water with a camera." Sharks are among the most elusive, frustrating subjects to photograph. Far from stalking human prey, the strange sight of a wetsuited diver trailing a stream of bubbles causes most to turn tail and flee. Patience and luck are major factors in locating sharks. These photographs are gleaned from thousands of hours underwater over 25 years.

Experience has taught me that I need to target a certain species to guarantee a meeting. I need to take into account the particular shark's seasonal migration, its preferred prey, and the depth it frequents.

Food is often an enticement. At times, it works all too well. Once, while chumming for Caribbean reef sharks in the Bahamas, we attracted in the neighbourhood of 30. As they swarmed around my lens, I felt like a fashion photographer shooting provocative poses as fast as I could focus. Then without warning the sharks fled as one. I turned around to confront the largest hammerhead I had ever seen.

When excited by food, sharks can move at alarming speeds, in unpredictable ways. You, on the other hand, have a lot of cumbersome dive gear. Trying to keep track of more than one hungry shark can very quickly lead to an emergency.

In the Sixties, the shark cage was developed to allow photographers to work safely around great whites. An incidental benefit turned out to be that the metal bars seem to excite the magnetic perception of sharks and draw them to the cages. In the Nineties the chainmail shark suit was developed so that divers could get inside a pack of feeding sharks. It fits over your wet suit and prevents the shark's teeth from penetrating your skin. A big shark, though, can easily crush a limb or pull an arm right out of its socket.

One of the most important criteria in photographing sharks is your ability as a diver. If something goes wrong in a tense shooting situation your instinctive reactions can, and do, make the difference. The golden rule is never underestimate the shark and overestimate your abilities as a diver. It stands to reason that the more you work with sharks the better you become at understanding their unspoken language. And sharks definitely speak. Sometimes they yell. Erratic movements indicate excitement. They are often followed by an attempt to get at the object of that excitement. Some sharks arch their backs and lower their pectoral fins before charging. However, it is worth remembering that each shark is an individual with its own attitude.

Although photographing sharks has been a lifelong passion, each encounter is as surprising and fulfilling as the first time. My love affair with sharks is a flame that never flickers, and a lifetime underwater has not dampened it.

`Shark!', by Jeffrey L Rotman, is published by Ipso Facto, pounds 24.95

Sand tiger shark, North Carolina If looks could kill ... we'd die of fright. The much maligned, toothsome sand tiger shark fits the image of the ultimate predator, but is actually a gentle animal. This photograph illustrates a shark behaviour called yawning; in the case of the sand tiger, its jaws widen to terrifying proportions, which I was lucky enough to capture on film.

Caribbean reef shark, Freeport, Grand Bahama Island

A mile off the coast of Freeport, Bahamas, shark handler extraordinaire Neal Watson grabbed this Caribbean reef shark and put it into a trance- like state. It lay motionless in his arms except for the flickering of its nictitating membrane (third eyelid). Despite the fact that Neal wears a chainmail anti-shark suit, this manoeuvre should only be attempted by very experienced shark feeders.

Sand tiger shark, New South Wales, Australia

Its threatening countenance may be one reason that sand tiger sharks have been favourite targets of spearfishing divers. This species is now protected from further slaughter in New South Wales. Sand tiger sharks have become a tourist draw here - divers can safely approach them. Although a sand tiger may occasionally make a determined move that causes a diver to give it space, humans need not fear being attacked by this gentle species.

Scalloped hammerhead, Kaneohe Bay, Hawaii

There is no mistaking a hammerhead shark, with its head that looks like it has been squeezed in a vice. What is the advantage of this feature? Widely spaced eyes and nostrils may make its senses more acute than those of other sharks. The flattened head may also improve swimming efficiency. It has been discovered that juvenile hammerheads in Kaneohe take refuge in deep, murky parts of the bay by day (perhaps to avoid larger sharks).

Moses smoothhound shark, Aqaba Gulf, Israel

This deep-water shark was captured in the Red Sea, 500 metres off Eilat. It was raised to the surface in stages over three hours. This allowed it to decompress slowly in order to adapt to the huge change in pressure from its natural habitat. The shark survived its ordeal. The Moses smoothhound shark is well adapted for life in the deep. A bottom feeder, its nostrils are on the ventral (bottom) side of its head, to help it locate prey living on the sea bed.

Thornback ray, Santa Cruz Island, California

A face only a mother could love. The underside of this ray shows its tiny grinding teeth which can grip a crab or mollusc firmly before crushing its shell. Thornback rays rest in small groups in the sand during the day and venture out at night to feed. The rays have rows of thorny spines to discourage predators.

Whale shark, Western Australia

At 14 metres, the whale shark is not only the largest shark in the sea, it is the largest fish as well. Most open-water sharks are countershaded, but the whale shark has a distinctive colour pattern. This shark cruises slowly near the surface, pursued by divers, as it strains shrimp-like krill from the seawater. I had to move directly into its path in order to get this shot, taken from a distance of three metres. All the other whale sharks I approached would veer away before I could get this image. This one was like watching a freight train bearing down on me, and I hoped we'd avoid impact at the last second. Fortunately, the whale shark altered its course.

Caribbean reef shark, Freeport, Grand Bahama Island

Some people believe the magnetic field created by the metal links of a chainmail suit can disrupt a shark's electromagnetic sense and put it into a brief trance-like state. By offering a fish to a reef shark you bring it one step closer to a level of comfort which may allow it to go into a state of semi-sleep. This results in a diver being able to handle the shark. Like a stage hypnotist, a shark handler takes advantage of the creature's stupor to make it perform embarrassing acts that it would never do if it were fully awake.

Smooth hammerhead shark, Durban, South Africa

A juvenile hammerhead is the latest victim of the shark net. Anti-shark nets have ringed the swimming beaches around the Natal coast of South Africa since 1952. The good news is there are rarely shark attacks here; the bad news is that entire populations of sharks have been decimated. A growing understanding of the importance of sharks in maintaining the biodiversity of the ocean is making some question the wisdom of this devastating practice.

Caribbean reef shark, Freeport, Grand Bahama Island

The reef shark is the star of many shark feeding demonstrations staged for tourists. After receiving instructions to keep their hands to themselves, scuba divers seeking a once-in-a-lifetime experience are seated on the ocean floor at a depth of 12 metres. The shark feeder arrives shortly afterwards with a metal container filled with fish which he or she passes out to sharks eagerly awaiting a free meal. While not particularly aggressive, Caribbean reef sharks have been known to attack divers, especially when bait or speared fish are involved. n