Sharks have long been a passion of mine, but no shark has captivated me quite like the endangered great hammerhead. Powerful yet amazingly sensitive, they are particularly susceptible to stress, making them highly vulnerable to over-exploitation and population depletion. 

On a recent trip to the Bahamas, Christine Shepard, photographer and media coordinator for the RJ Dunlap Marine Conservation Program, had the incredible opportunity to photograph great hammerheads in their natural habitat. These sharks are in trouble, and an up-close encounter with one is a gift, one which she has shared with us at Earth Touch. 

As the sun set over the liquid horizon, a veil of darkness fell upon the tropical shallows of Bimini. I was on day four of a great hammerhead expedition led by underwater cameraman Joe Romiero and Capt. Curt Slonim. We stood poised to descend into the black water to capture rare night-time imagery of these apex predators. Once situated on the sand, my eyes adjusted to the dim moonlight. All was still and calm. Within the first three minutes, I spotted a large figure approaching. The distinct hammer-shaped head swung back and forth as it swam closer. I was entranced with his sleek, natural motions cutting through the water. As counterintuitive as it may seem, that dive ended up being the most beautiful, tranquil and enthralling dive I’ve ever experienced…

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How do you feel before a dive like this?

For me, the most important thing before a dive, especially a shark dive, is to be organised, calm and present. I try to prep all my gear ahead of time so that there is no rush. This helps me to be safe, focused on my work, and fully able to enjoy the experience. And if I ever have a funny feeling about a dive, I have no qualms about calling it off. That gut feeling is there for a reason. More often than not, though, I’m just excited for what I’m about to see. 

What are some of the challenges when photographing sharks?

Water and electronics don’t typically get along. But thanks to awesome companies like Nauticam, there are reliable and durable housings to protect our cameras underwater. Even still, it takes a considerable amount of precision and focus to properly prepare your camera gear for an underwater adventure. And once you submerge, the photography game jumps to a new level. Unlike on land, you have to be within feet or even inches of your subject to take a great photograph. That takes a lot of patience, persistence and a bit of luck too. 

Shooting sharks underwater at night is probably the ultimate test of faith and being in the moment. You have no time to allow your imagination to enter a fearful state. You must be fully present, calm and alert. But at the same time, it is eerily calming too. There’s something very spiritual about fully giving yourself to a situation and trusting it will all work out.  

What kind of lighting do you use, and how do the sharks react to it?

During our night dive, we were lucky enough to have a full moon. We tried to keep our dive lights to a minimum, allowing our eyes to adjust to the dark and inviting the sharks to come a bit closer. The hammerheads sometimes are scared off by too much artificial light. But when in close enough proximity to capture a great photograph, I would fire two strobes, illuminating the white hammer of the shark against the black backdrop. 

Although some sharks are attracted to shiny camera equipment and certain strobe lights, the great hammerhead does not seem to be one of them. They take quite a while to trust humans underwater and to tip the risk-benefit analysis toward approaching our dive area.

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How do they interact with you while you are photographing?

During this particular dive, the shark did not seem the least bit interested or phased by us divers. He was only cruising by in search of fish scraps.

Are there any moments that stand out to you from this particular dive?

There was one particularly close pass the shark made where he lifted his hammer off the sand in search of the fish scent. I held my camera as low as possible on the sand, angled upward, locked focus on the animal and fired a quick succession of images. As soon as the strobes lit up the scene, I knew I had the shot – the one you hope for and dream of. Exhilaration raced through my body and my eyes smiled with joy. 

What makes photographing hammerheads different from other species?

Hammerheads are arguably the most evolved out of the 500+ species of sharks. They are so highly specialised, it’s incredible! Watching them swing their hammer back and forth as they cut through the water column is a visceral experience. Compared to other apex predators of the tropics, it seems as though hammerheads are more cautious and intelligent. They utilise all of their senses from sight to smell, lateral line to electromagnetic sense. Photographing them may take a little extra patience, but it’s well worth the wait!

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What went through your mind after the dive?

When I finished up my dive that night, I was exhilarated! It was honestly one of the most incredible experiences of my life. I was ready to dive back in and do it again!  

I feel so fortunate and appreciative of these opportunities to witness first hand our ocean’s apex predators in their natural space. You can’t help but be humbled by their power, grace and sheer evolutionary perfection. I also have many friends and colleagues to thank for making these moments possible and introducing me to this majestic world. The shark diving and marine conservation community is an incredible network of passionate people. I love working alongside so many of them! I truly appreciate and savour the quality time I can spend with these magnificent creatures. They are beyond beautiful and demand awe and respect.