Longtime shark photographer urges caution, not hysteria, after fatal attack

Despite hundreds of dives with the predator, Brian Skerry is cautious as growing seal populations lure sharks to U.S. East Coast beaches.

Monday, August 3, 2020,
By David Beard
Photograph by BRIAN SKERRY, NAT GEO IMAGE COLLECTION

Last week saw the first fatal shark attack off Maine ever reported.

Photographer Brian Skerry, who has spent more than 10,000 hours diving, has been documenting sharks for years, sometimes in a cage as the fearsome creatures approached. He knows one environmental success—the rebound in shark populations off Cape Cod and Maine—is partly because of the bounce-back of its favourite meal, seal.

Long before the attack, Brian had been documenting the relationship between shark and seal. In the image above, off Cape Cod, Brian placed a camera in a seal decoy he designed and built to get the image of a shark eyeing what it thought could be dinner. Below, he captured an aerial view of gray seals near a Cape Cod beach—and, in the same image, farther out in the water, a single great white shark on the hunt. Authorities think a shark mistook the victim of last week's attack for a seal. (Here's why shark attacks are more common in the Atlantic than the Pacific.)

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Photograph by BRIAN SKERRY, NAT GEO IMAGE COLLECTION

As the white shark population rebounds and seal populations rebound, this predator-prey relationship is going to re-emerge anywhere these two species overlap,” Greg Skomal, a leading Atlantic great white shark expert, tells Nat Geo. Below, a crush of grey seals along Monomoy Island, off the Cape Cod town of Chatham, Massachusetts.

Photograph by BRIAN SKERRY, NAT GEO IMAGE COLLECTION

These days, Skerry has been on assignment diving off the coast of New Hampshire and Maine, focusing on lobsters and colourful anemones. He says he won’t linger near the surface (where sharks feed on seals), but acknowledges he’s “very concerned.” “The notion of diving in cold waters, with limited visibility, having my head buried in my viewfinder, focusing on a lobster on the sea floor and looking up to see a great white shark near me is very unnerving,” he told us Thursday evening. (Which sharks swim in British waters? More than you might think.)

Sharks of any kind rarely attack humans, and that’s been his experience. “I’ve made many hundreds, perhaps thousands of shark dives over the years and have only had maybe three-four times where I felt that I needed to get out of the water because it became unsafe.”

Still, he urges great caution to beachgoers near waters where great whites have been spotted, discouraging swimming, surfing or even boogie boarding. Here’s Skerry (below) in quieter waters, with his camera and underwater lights, photographing a school of alewife on their annual migration up Mill Brook in Westbrook, Maine.

Photograph by STEVE DE NEEF
David Beard is National Geographic's executive editor for newsletters.
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