Magnificent and misunderstood: Iconic images of sharks from WPY history

14 July 2017 posted by: Zoe - WPY Comms Officer

No. of comments: 1

Sharks have inhabited the oceans for 400 million years and remain a crucial part of the marine ecosystem. However, these important and often misunderstood creatures are declining rapidly in numbers, under threat from industrial fishing operations, climate change and the shark fin soup trade.


In honour of Shark Awareness Day, we're celebrating some of the competition's most memorable images of sharks - pictures highlighting their awe-inspiring beauty, but also their fragility and the formidable threats they face. Seeing these images reminds us all that an ocean without these unique predators is simply unimaginable.

Rhythm of the blues © Cristobal Serrano, Spain. Finalist 2015, Underwater.


'I especially wanted a view looking down at them,' explains Cristobal, 'to illustrate the beautiful, sinuous movement that characterises their elegant swimming style'. Cristobal encountered these two blue sharks with their attendant pilot fish on a clear sunny day, where shark-migration researchers had submerged a container of bait. Blue sharks are among the fastest sharks. They can also travel vast distances - commonly up to 3,000 kilometres - utilising major currents, such as the Gulf Stream, to undertake their clockwise transatlantic migrations. They are one of the most heavily fished sharks in the world, highly prized for their large fins, used in soups.

Passing giants © Indra Swari Wonowidjojo, Indonesia. Winner 2014, Underwater


During a new Moon, the lights from the bagans (semi-mobile fishing platforms) in Cenderawasih Bay in Irian Jaya, Indonesia, attract shoals of fish into the nets of local fishermen. The lights act as a signal to filter-feeding whale sharks, which have learned to suck on the nets to extract the fish. It's an easy meal, so easy that the whale sharks sometimes need to be shooed away from the nets, though some fishermen will feed them. Up to 10 whale sharks can cruise around a bagan at any one time, and the location is now becoming a dive hotspot. Attracted by the spectacle, Indra spent a few days diving there. As a huge whale shark - at least nine metres long - glided by on one dive, she noticed another swimming a little deeper, in a different direction. She swam quickly to position herself above both of them when their paths crossed. She adjusted her strobe output and ISO so the great fish would both be sufficiently illuminated. 'The sharks will happily swim straight into you, gently nudging you out of their way,' she says. 'The fishermen see them as good omens and often jump in and swim with them.' Elsewhere in Asia, these massive animals, the world's largest fish, continue to be hunted.

Hook, line and sinking © Justin Gilligan, Australia. Commended 2013. World in Our Hands Award


Grey nurse sharks are protected in Australian waters, yet they continue to be killed through recreational and commercial fishing. In the 1950s and 1960s, vast numbers were slaughtered because of the misconception that they were man-eaters. Their placid nature made them easy targets. But Seal Rocks off New South Wales remains a grey nurse shark hotspot. It's remote and tricky to get to, and Justin had tried unsuccessfully to photograph there on several occasions. But on this day, the visibility was perfect. 'The day was amazing, and I was so excited to be down there,' says Justin - until this shark swam into view, a hook embedded in its jaw. It was his most important shot of the day, highlighting the plight of sharks the world over. At least a hundred million are killed annually mainly for the shark-fin trade.

The longline lottery © Rodrigo Friscione Wyssmann, Mexico. Finalist 2014, World in our Hands


Rodrigo came across this grim sight off Magdalena Bay on the Pacific coast of Baja California, Mexico. He had followed the path of a fisherman's buoy that had been dragged below the surface by a considerable weight. It had clearly been a monumental struggle. The young great white shark's jaw jutted out at an ugly angle, evidence of how it had fought to escape from the hook before finally suffocating. 'I was shocked,' Rodrigo says. 'Great whites are amazing, graceful and highly intelligent creatures. It was such a sad scene that I changed the image to black and white, which felt more dignified.' The hook was on a long line of hooks, set up to catch blue and mako sharks. These baited long-lines may stretch for many miles and are responsible for the deaths of tens of thousands of animals every year, many of them endangered.

The Shark surfer © Thomas P Peschak, Germany/South Africa. Finalist 2015, The Wildlife Photojournalist Award: single image


A curious blacktip shark sidles up to a paddling surfer. This popular dive site is the perfect place to test a prototype surfboard with an electromagnetic shark deterrent. 'I wanted to illustrate a non-lethal approach to mitigating the shark-surfer conflict,' explains Thomas, who used the complementary forms to suggest peaceful coexistence. Jelly-filled pores on a shark's snout, called ampullae of Lorenzini, can sense electricity, able to detect even the minute muscle contractions of prey preparing to flee. This hi-tech board attempts to exploit this sensitive trait by creating an electrical field that repels the shark, causing it to flee to a safer distance.

The end of sharks © Paul Hilton, UK/Australia. Commended 2012, World in Our Hands


Workers at Dong Gang Fish Market in Kaohsiung, Taiwan, routinely process thousands of frozen shark fins a day to service the growing international demand for shark-fin soup. Once a delicacy, the dish is increasingly popular with China's growing middle class. The statistics are grim: up to 100 million sharks are killed each year, 73 million for their fins to service this demand, taking one in three shark species to the brink of extinction. Since 1972, in the northwest Atlantic, the blacktip shark population has fallen by up to 93 per cent, the tiger shark by 97 per cent and the bull shark, dusky shark and smooth hammerhead populations by 99 per cent or more. Many millions of sharks are taken solely for their fins and get thrown back into the ocean, where it takes hours for them to die. Says Paul, 'It was sobering to think how many sharks had been killed to produce this pile of fins for a soup that isn't even healthy' (the fins contain high levels of methylmercury). Another sombre thought: in the time that it has taken to read this caption, around 50 sharks will have been slaughtered worldwide.

Ocean blues © Jordi Chias Pujol, Spain. Finalist 2014, Underwater.


Diving off Santa Maria island in the Azores, Jordi relished his close encounters with blue sharks. 'Sometimes they came within centimetres,' he says. 'They're such beautiful animals, such elegant swimmers - it was a great spectacle.' He spent a while shooting wide-angle images before turning his attention to the detail of their slender bodies. He had in mind a picture of two blues - one close up, another further away in profile. But with the sharks constantly cruising, framing the right moment was a challenge. When they fleetingly aligned he was ready, capturing the perfect blue shark portrait. Blue sharks are widespread and presumed abundant, though there are no population estimates. They migrate vast distances across the Atlantic, feeding mainly on bony fish and squid. But there is concern for their future. They are the most heavily fished shark species, with an unsustainable annual catch estimated at 20 million, mostly through longline and drift net fishing by-catch. Many are caught in European waters, and their fins are sold to the Asian market. There is now a campaign to create a shark sanctuary around the Azores, given that shark diving in the area is a more lucrative industry than fishing.

Tears of blood © Brian Skerry, USA. Highly commended 2010, One Earth Award


Each year more than 100 million sharks are killed worldwide, threatening the surival of most species. The slaughter is in part driven by the high price paid for shark fins on the Asian market. Brian went to Baja California, Mexico, specifically to document the killing. There is no restriction on shark-fishing in the Gulf of California, and using gillnets, fishermen will fish out an area and then move on. This female mako shark was pregnant with nearly full-term pups. 'I was concentrating on composing the frame to show the finning of this beautiful fish, with the fisherman sharpening his knife in the background,' says Brian. 'It was only afterwards that I noticed the poignant "tear of blood".'

Giant with sunbeams © Alexander Mustard, UK. Commended 2013, Nature in Black and White


Alex took this shot in open water in the Caribbean Sea, off Mexico's Yucatan Peninsula, while swimming among a huge aggregation of whale sharks. The sharks were feasting on millions of tuna eggs. One picture he had decided on was a backlit silhouette that would show the bow waves generated by these enormous animals - the world's biggest fish - as they push through the water, scooping up food in their giant mouths. When he spotted the fin of an approaching shark with the sun behind it, he dived down, held his breath and waited for the eight-metre animal to pass overhead so he could shoot it backlit, with the sunbeams spearing into the water along its flanks. 'As serene as the moment looks,' says Alex, 'I was bursting for air. The combination of excitement and awe didn't help, or the fact that I had five metres of water and a shark between me and the surface. But the result was definitely worth it.' The tourism that has developed around the feeding aggregation is also worthwhile. It's put a value on keeping the sharks alive rather than as fodder for the shark-fin industry (a whale shark fin can fetch between $10,000 and $20,000), giving the sharks in Mexican waters a brighter future.

Racing blue © Nuno Sá, Portugal. Highly commended 2011, Underwater Worlds


Within minutes of lowering a container of bait into the sea, 'a torpedo-shaped shark shot up from the deep blue below,' says Nuno, alerted by the movement as well as the smell. Nuno's boat was over a seamount off the coast of Faial Island in the Azores, being used by a research team from the University of the Azores studying the importance of such seamounts as possible mating areas for blue sharks. Nuno's aim was to illustrate the beauty of this top predator, built for speed. Though supposedly abundant, an estimated 20 million blue sharks are caught annually, either as bycatch or for their fins to supply the Asian food market. The likelihood is that the population is in fast decline.




Recent Posts