Preparation, perseverance and the perfect shot

Words & Photographs by Jake Wilton

Underwater photographer Jake Wilton embarked on a mission to capture the perfect leopard shark image on Western Australia’s Ningaloo Reef. In this online feature, he shows just how much work goes into getting that one shot…

“Leopard Shark!” While out exploring a shallow lagoon area of the Ningaloo Reef, the captain finally yelled the words I had been anxiously waiting for. As I sprinted towards the rear of the vessel to grab my camera gear, I glanced out over the side and knew this could be the day I had anticipated for so long. After two years of perseverance, it looked like the stars had finally aligned and I was going to capture my perfect shot. Sitting on the marlin board at the boat’s stern, I closed my eyes and focussed on controlling my breathing to make sure I would have an adequate breath hold. I had replayed this moment in my head various times during the last couple of years, and after many failed attempts, finally had my plan in motion. I was anxiously waiting to spot and shoot the perfect shark.

Leopard sharks (Stegostoma fasciatum), also known as zebra sharks outside of the Asia-Pacific area, are a species of carpet shark found throughout the Indo-Pacific region. As a juvenile they hatch from their eggs sporting a black and white striped pattern; this is also how they get the name zebra shark. As they mature, they go through one of the most spectacular transformations of any marine animal: their skin turns bright yellow and they develop black leopard-like spots over their entire body – hence their common name in Australia, the leopard shark.

The fringing reefs of the Ningaloo are home to a resident population of leopard sharks. They usually come here in larger numbers during the summer months. The best time to photograph the species is during the winter when the cooler waters of the southern Ningaloo current bring clearer waters and cleanse the sandy bottoms of the algae blooms, which tend to happen during the summer and autumn periods. At the same time, however, this is also the most difficult time to locate the sharks. The time of year plays a crucial part in taking the photograph. The summer and autumn months brought warmer water and a higher number of leopard sharks, but also coated the sea floor in a brown and yellow algae, making it impossible to achieve a clean shot of the sand. As the seasons transitioned into winter, the algae would take a long time to completely disappear, therefore the image could only be captured in the deep of winter, when encounters were extremely rare. If I was lucky, I would be able to get two encounters at most during this period.

Once I began to attempt to capture the image, I quickly learnt that there was a lot more needed then just luckily encountering a shark in the shallow lagoon and snapping away to get the image I had envisioned. Firstly, just finding a leopard shark was difficult enough, let alone discovering one on the shallow, clear sand flats we visited every day. Encounters were sparse and seemed to average at about one every two months. Secondly, being fortunate enough to find a shark with a placid disposition that would be at ease with a diver swimming along with it, in a location that is known for its large predators, such as tiger sharks would be a challenge, to say the least.

As I was using natural light, the sun’s position was essential. I needed the sun to be high enough to provide enough light for the subject, but a sun that would be too high would create harsh highlights and blow out the image. The time of day and depth of water where the shark was located were also essential in capturing the perfect image. Even though it is located in the tropics, Ningaloo Reef actually gets a more temperate winter. The southern Ningaloo current brings water temperatures of 17 to 19 degrees celsius and icy winds blowing directly from the Southern Ocean along the Western Australian coast. As sightings of leopard sharks are random, spontaneous, and can happen quickly, you must be fully kitted up and ready to jump into the water at any moment. Spending months shivering in a cold and wet wetsuit, watching everyone get warm and dry, is just a small price to pay for even the chance to swim and photograph the elusive leopard shark.

As I was out freediving and photographing tiger sharks in the same area one day, a thin veil of cloud passed overhead. I assumed the cloud would dull the image, but when I started editing, I began to notice the cloud actually acted as a natural diffuser; enhancing the image and solving the sun ray highlight issue I was experiencing due to the shallow, clear water, and white sand.

I felt I was so close to that perfect shot, but soon realised it was going to be near impossible to get the variables lined up together at the exact moment I needed them to. Being in Australia’s arid northwest, Coral Bay only gets less than a week’s worth of rain on average and possibly a month’s worth of cloud cover annually. The type of cloud cover needed was going to be difficult to achieve, as it was typically preceded or followed by rain. I knew there was a slim chance, so I began to plan and wait. My breathing technique had to be perfect to ensure my breath hold would be sufficient to freedive down, to both compose the shot and make sure the angles were perfect using the fish eye lens without distorting the subject.

Over two years I was lucky enough to encounter leopard sharks approximately 15 times. But this was the first time that the weather conditions were perfect. This was it; this was the day I had been waiting for. Now all I needed was to find the leopard shark and gain its trust so I could freedive alongside it.

I’m sitting on the marlin board, ready to slide in as soon as the boat is in position. I close my eyes and take a deep breath to calm my nerves. The horn sounds, I slide into the water and I finally see the leopard shark, knowing this is the moment I’ve been waiting for for years. Every failed attempt lead to this moment. The leopard shark was relaxed, swam slowly, looked incredibly vibrant and cruised along at the perfect depth. Now all I had to do was focus on my breathing and not scare it away! The water was crystal clear, the shark perfectly located and completely at ease with my presence, and the sun was at the perfect height. There was a thin veil of cloud shrouding the sky, acting as a natural diffuser so the highlights wouldn’t blow out the sand or shark. The current was minimal helping me control my breathing, it was shallow enough for great light and colour, but also deep enough at 4 metres so the light wasn’t too harsh. The leopard shark itself was very bright, providing an amazing contrast against the contours of the sand.

Calmly swimming alongside her, I attempted a couple of half dives a good distance away to make sure she wasn’t too timid, before I moved in closer to attempt the shot. She was moving from the bottom to the surface regularly, so I timed my attempt for when she was descending as I wanted to follow her down until the sun rays were diffused. Swimming alongside her, 15 minutes passed before she swam by the perfect patch of sand and began her descent. I took a deep breath and followed her, keeping close enough for the image but further away to not disturb her. During what felt like hours but was only brief seconds, everything I had hoped and yearned for came together as I focused the camera and clicked.

In the end, taking the photo is the easy part. It’s the preparation, the perseverance, the waiting in cold wetsuits on chilly days, that makes it the most difficult, intense but rewarding part of the journey. Capturing the perfect shot that you have envisioned for years is one of the most worthwhile and satisfying experiences of being an underwater photographer, and that dedication and attention to detail makes all the difference in the final product. You need to be determined, focused, prepared to get uncomfortable, and willing to go the extra mile that other people aren’t in order to be successful. It can take months, years or might never happen at all, but with time, commitment, and a bit of luck I believe you can capture any shot you set out to achieve.

Additional photographs by Unsplash