Lying in water only a foot deep, I watched the shark meander lazily through the mangrove, already exuding the confidence inherent of the supreme creature within its domain. It was hot here in Bimini, nearly 100-degrees and mosquitoes were thick and relentless, swarming on to any bare skin. Yet slipping my head just inches below the water’s surface I had entered another realm. I was absolutely transfixed watching these little sharks, perhaps 12 to 18 inches long; swimming beneath mangrove roots and over the muddy bottom with impressive deftness. It was a shark scene quite unlike any others I had observed before; baby lemon sharks living within their mangrove nurseries, and an experience that was as fascinating to me as any encounter with bigger sharks in open water. As I lay there wearing only a wetsuit, mask, and snorkel, I thought about how vital this fragile ecosystem was for sharks and how crucial sharks are for the health of the world’s oceans.
Like many divers, I have fallen under the spell of sharks, wanting to spend time with them whenever possible. Photographically, they are ideal subjects possessing a unique blend of grace and power that translates beautifully as a still frame, a moment frozen in time. Even these tiny lemon pups, only a few months old, possessed such qualities, and I was quite content lying in that shallow water for hours on end just watching them move. My first encounters with sharks were with blues nearly 30 years ago in the waters off New England. These were exhilarating days filled with anticipation as I steamed offshore and spent hours drifting in the chilly water, watching stunning indigo blue animals nosing through the slick. Experiencing one-on-one encounters with those sharks had me hooked and like an addict I wanted more. So as the voyage of my photojournalism career got underway, I steered it toward sharks as often as I could.
Not too long ago, the notion of swimming with sharks was viewed as dangerous and something only a daredevil or fool might consider doing. Over the course of the last few decades however, such views have changed as divers began having more shark experiences and realizing that such encounters are a privilege. To experience a shark underwater within its domain is to see an animal that is supreme and perfect for the habitat in which it lives. The body and form of each species has been sculpted by eons in the sea to be flawless and ideally suited to hunt and dominate in all ecosystems. Reef sharks have stout bodies with short pectoral fins that are perfectly designed for hunting on coral reefs, while blue sharks are designed like glider aircrafts with long fuselage-like bodies and wing-like pectorals made for cruising long distances in pelagic waters. Whales sharks, makos, and horn sharks, too, have all equally adapted to thrive within their specific realm. Each species is unique, and each a jewel of evolution.
I have had countless magical shark encounters around the world with great whites, tigers, bulls, blacktips, great hammerheads, and more. And I believe that I am better for having such experiences, finding myself as respectful of and fascinated by these animals as ever. It has been said that sharks have remained unchanged for hundreds of millions of years because they are perfect and that no further evolutionary change is necessary. A few days in the company of any shark is all that is required to know this is true.
Editor's Note: Want more sharks? View the image gallery of shark photos by Brian Skerry. Explore the Ocean Portal's Great White Shark section, check out the Ocean Over Time to learn about prehistoric sharks, and discover five reasons to Revere, Not Fear, the Shark.