TThere are no more iconic species on the planet here than the great white shark. Everyone knows what they are, even in the most landlocked countries on Earth, and people are fascinated with them. Great white sharks on Seal Island, a few miles across the water from False Bay near Cape Town, use a surface hunting technique called a gap. They lurk in the depths waiting for porpoise seals along the waves, then dart with incredible speed towards the surface. Their great power pulls them out of the water and results in these dramatic breaches that have become famous on documentary channels around the world.
Sharks tend to hunt differently based on their environment. In the Farallon Islands, near San Francisco, they will bite the fins of the seals and let them bleed out. But on Seal Island, certain environmental factors encourage this type of aerial hunting. First, it’s the ideal topography: shoals turn deep quickly, meaning sharks patrolling the deeper waters can surprise their prey. Stealth is key.
Second, sharks are the right age. Very young sharks do not tend to feed on mammalian prey, and older large sharks tend to hunt larger, slower-moving animals. Near Seal Island there are a large number of these adolescent sharks that are strong and agile enough to clean the water. And finally, it’s about the seals. They are small enough to be the perfect prey for adolescent great whites. Those factors combine on Seal Island like nowhere else on Earth, resulting in this incredible airshow.
When I took this photo, I thought it had something special, but you never know until it unfolds. I was shooting on film so I couldn’t scroll back and check it out. But when I brought the scroll to the lab on a Friday night, I told them to be more careful because I thought I might have something. It was a long wait over the weekend.
When I walked into the lab the following Monday morning, everyone was clapping. I looked at the first frame and it was smooth, I was sure I had screwed it up. So this was the second frame. It was crisp. The rush was just incredible.
As a wildlife photographer, you spend hours and hours concentrating, looking through a minute viewer, dealing with concentration headaches – it’s a complete process. If you sneeze or look away, you may miss the opportunity. To this day, despite having spent over 3,500 days at sea, I have never come close to capturing an image as powerful and evocative as this one. Last year I took a photo of a shark jumping much higher, but it did not have the same dynamism. I don’t think I can match this shot.
Taken in 2001, this image was a turning point in my career. It has probably been seen in more places than any other image of marine wildlife – it has appeared on around 500 covers and covers, and billboards around the world. Last year, he won the StART Global Eye Award, 20 years after I took it.
There is something intimidating about that success. Documentary crews from around the world started pounding on our door, wanting to come and see this amazing shark behavior. The BBC, National Geographic, Discovery Channel, they reached the southern tip of Africa.
The animals have given me everything. They are the reason I get up in the morning, the reason I go to sleep waiting for the next day. Ultimately, even if it’s for selfish reasons, you need to make sure these animals are there tomorrow, because spending time with them is very enjoyable. This photograph is a call to action, to protect the animals and ecosystems that make our planet what it is.
Chris Fallows CV
Born: Johannesburg, South Africa, 1972.
Trained: Self-taught, but with many inspiring people who gave me advice, including my father, Tony Heald, Doug Perrine, and Jim Watt.
Influences: David Yarrow, Nick Brandt, Federico Veronesi, Bob Talbot.
Decisive point: “Discovering the famous flying great whites of South Africa in 1996 and, photographically, taking this image in 2001 and winning the prestigious StART Global Eye award for it in 2020.”
Low point: “Watching South Africa’s sharks and wildlife disappear, and our politicians let it happen. “
Better advice: “Know and respect your subjects and remember that it is a privilege to share your company.”
Chris FallowsThe 11th Hour exhibition is on StART Art Fair, October 13-17 at Saatchi Gallery, London
George is Digismak’s reported cum editor with 13 years of experience in Journalism