When shark stories bounce around online, they tend to be of the scaremongering variety. But this week, a great white rose to internet fame thanks to its embodiment of the human experience – or rather, one of humankind's least favourite experiences:  We tip our hats to you, Robert Peterson.

This is actually not the first time the amazing photo – which has been shared over 200,000 times on social media – has crossed our paths. It was taken by surfer and ocean conservationist Mike Coots during a cage dive off the coast of New Zealand back in January. At the time, it was turned into another meme:

Screen Shot 2016-10-04 at 12.37.38 PM.png
Image: Mike Coots/9Gag
Lego and laughs aside, what is the shark really doing? For a start, there's nothing aggressive going in here. 

You'll notice that there is almost no sign of a splash around the shark, which suggests  the animal breached the surface very slowly. During a baited cage dive, operators will typically leave something – a neoprene fake seal or chunk of fish, for example – dangling in the water. The object is pulled out as the shark gets close, but it's common for the animal to continue poking around even after the foreign body has been removed. (If you look closely at the left side of the image, you can see some disturbance and a buoy.)

The only way for a shark to investigate its surroundings (no hands here, after all) is with its toothy open mouth. Coots describes what he witnessed as "gaping", but the behaviour is more precisely described as "spy-hopping". 

"I've seen them legitimately (and calmly) spy-hop before," says renowned great white photographer George Probst. "It's fairly rare, and quite surreal. You don't expect a white shark to just pop its head out and look around. And you almost never have your camera ready!"

Coots managed to capture the moment using a GoPro on a half-second timer, and is quite pleased with the internet's response to the photo. "I think by using humour to personify what could be looked at as a scary 'teethy' image, it helps calm the myth that sharks are these dangerous non-discriminate killers without feelings," he told Cnet. "Humour is used with personification to remove fear and is replaced with laughter. Got to love that."

This is just the kind of response we've come to expect from the surfer, whose devotion to shark conservation has unexpected origins. Coots lost his leg to a tiger shark when he was a teenager, and in the years since, he has become an ambassador for sharks, helping to rally support for better protections in Hawaii, where he now lives.

"Diving with dinosaurs never gets old," Coots wrote on Instagram when he posted the original image. "I would highly recommend it as a must do. Words can't explain how incredible it is to see such magnificent fish up close."

Not convinced about the behaviour? See for yourself in this 2015 encounter from the filming of Shark Week:



Top header image: Grant Peters/Flickr