Personal Perspectives

Chasing a Basking Shark

"Ocean sunfish" by Mark Harris
"Ocean sunfish" by Mark Harris (Mark Harris)

It was a hot and sunny day, with barely a whiff of breeze. I boarded a boat in Oban, on the coast of Scotland, and headed west past the Isle of Mull and into the North Atlantic.

It was July 2014, and I was in search of some imagery for a book I was writing on freediving photography. I was seeking basking sharks. These are commonly seen off the British coast during the summer and are a great subject for the freediving or snorkeling photographer because they spend much of their time near the surface, filtering small plants and animals out of the water for meals. On that day, we were blessed with the presence of many marine creatures--harbor porpoises, minke whales and several species of large jellyfish. But the basking sharks seemed elusive, for a reason that became obvious when we entered the water. The water was an uncharacteristic blue color, and at 18 degrees Celsius (64 degrees Fahrenheit)—quite warm. The green, plankton-rich water that the basking sharks prefer had been replaced by a relatively tropical, food-poor azure layer.

Seeing a large fin flapping at the surface, and hoping it might be the fin of a basking shark, we jumped in. It was indeed a large fish, but not a shark. This was a Mola Mola, or ‘ocean sunfish.’ So-called because on sunny days they warm their bodies under the sun, close to the water’s surface. This one proved to be quite approachable. We later wondered if it had hoped we would clean away some of its resident parasites. It was a large specimen–nearly 2 meters (6 feet) from fin-tip to fin-tip. We stayed alongside and photographed the sunfish for a good 15 minutes.

Eventually we re-boarded our vessel and moved on a mile or so, to return to the more typical green hues. Within a fairly short space of time, a basking shark was located, and we were fortunate enough to photograph this too.

Our encounters that day were quite magical. I had a great collection of images on my memory card, and when I returned to writing ‘Glass and Water’ (the name of my book), I devoted a whole chapter to the experience. I hope that this image captures the magic we felt, so that it can be felt by all. 

-Mark Harris, Photographer

This photo submission was on display at the Smithsonian National Museum of Natural History alongside those taken by photojournalist Brian Skerry in the exhibit Portraits of Planet Ocean which closed on October 4, 2015. See a slideshow of other winners.

October 2015