Picture of sharks in rays of light in deep blue water.

Scared of sharks? This photographer aims to turn shark fear into fascination

A lifelong passion for these ocean predators sparked a career in conservation photography and a mission to share the love.

Blacktip sharks circle in the depths of South Africa’s Aliwal Shoal.
It’s National Geographic SharkFest’s 10th anniversary! Celebrate the apex predators during July and August with programming on the National Geographic network and streaming on Disney+.

On a miserable day in the middle of winter, I push my then 60-year-old mother into the icy waters of the Atlantic. As a nearby great white shark comes to investigate, my mother faces it, then disappears under the water for what feels like an eternity. She returns to the surface, gasping for breath but smiling. I suppose the galvanized steel cage separating her and the shark had something to do with that.

For as long as I can remember, I have loved sharks and wanted to share that passion with everyone, including my initially reluctant parents. I saw my first shark when I was 16, off Egypt’s Sinai Peninsula. A trio of blacktips weaved among barracuda circling above a coral reef. I tried to get closer, finning hard into the open water, but a fierce current held me to the reef. When I showed my underwater photographs of this not-so-close encounter, explaining that the small specks were sharks, I was met with the dubious response: “Of course they are.” From then on, all I wanted was to get closer to sharks

After I made the switch from marine biologist to photographer, sharks were my first muses. I have now spent more than two decades documenting their complex and somewhat secretive lives. People often ask me what the most dangerous part of my job is—it’s not swimming with sharks. Statistically the most dangerous things I do are crossing the road, driving my car, and toasting bread. Sharks are not as fearsome as they’re made out to be, but some are formidable predators. Encountering wild sharks in their element is a rare privilege that I treat with equal parts respect, humility, and devotion.

A surfer tests a prototype electromagnetic shark-deterring surfboard alongside a blacktip shark at Aliwal Shoal near Durban, South Africa.
A surfer tests a prototype electromagnetic shark-deterring surfboard alongside a blacktip shark at Aliwal Shoal near Durban, South Africa.
The National Geographic Society has funded Thomas Peschak’s storytelling around biodiversity since 2017. The images and words here are drawn from Peschak’s 2021 book, Wild Seas, published by National Geographic and available wherever books are sold. Learn more about the Society's support of Explorers.

This story appears in the July 2022 issue of National Geographic magazine.

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