The Sharkman meets Jeremy Stafford-Deitsch
Sharkman: If I am right, your interest in diving started at a very young age whilst snorkelling in the Mediterranean. Where and when was this?
Jeremy: When I was a child, we used to have summer holidays in the south of France. I would spend hours snorkelling, and studying the wildlife, which was pretty fished out apart from lots of sea
urchins, a battered school of mullet and an occasional octopus. There was a local scuba diving club which I went along to. They told me you had to be 15 to scuba dive. I was 13, but tall for my age, so I said I was 15, and off I went and did 3 dives. I remember on the first dive, the instructor tried to hold my hand, but I wasn’t standing for that, so I sank straight to the bottom. I came back to the club the next summer to try again. They asked me how many dives I had done and I said 3 but (I subsequently found out) they thought I had said 300 (my French was not great). So they put me in the advanced dive group, off I went and I never looked back. That was in the early 1970s.
Sharkman: That was a little risky, but I guess you were made for diving. Do you remember what prompted this interest in you?
Jeremy: The usual clichés I’m afraid.
Sharkman: What made you take up underwater photography?
Jeremy: I wanted something to do down there rather than just gawking. To be honest – I wasn’t all that impressed by many of the underwater images I had seen. I thought I could do better (ah, the arrogance of youth)
Sharkman: I guess you did, but when you started, sharks in general, were still considered very dangerous. So what made you specialise in their photography?
Jeremy: I didn’t really intend to specialise in shark photography. It was just that this was the only thing people seemed to be interested in. This was post “Jaws” and everyone was shark crazy. The first thing anyone asked you when you told them you were a diver was “Have you seen a shark”? I was very interested in sharks and very unimpressed by the handful of endlessly recycled grainy, fuzzy, shark images that appeared in sensationalistic magazines and books.
Sharkman: Yes that is a question I still hear every day at the diving centre too. I guess you are one of the very few photographers, who have managed to photograph the largest number of different shark species. Is there any specific species that so far has evaded your camera, or that you still wish to encounter?
Jeremy: Let me answer your question tangentially. When I started doing shark photography there was a real sense of adventure to it. The first field trip I did was at Dr. Sonny Gruber’s famous Bimini Biological Field Station. There was one other unknown underwater photographer. He was struggling to make a career out of UW photography, and was called Doug Perrine. So, in a sense, we have had parallel careers. In fact, I emailed Doug recently to congratulate him on his great shark photos winning the BBC Wildlife Photographer of the Year competition. We both ended up bemoaning the fact that shark photography is not what it was. Not only are there fewer sharks left but the interesting shark sites have become conveyor belts for UW photographers. I went to Walker’s Cay before they realised what a treasure they had in their Bull sharks. As soon as word got out, an endless stream of UW film and still cameramen came through to get their images.
Jeremy: Once, when I was at Walker’s Cay, Jim Abernethy’s boat Shearwater came in. They had Ron and Valerie Taylor on board and Douglas Seifert. They were looking for Great Hammerheads. So I got a group together, and did a trip with Jim the next season. A few years on, most of the photographers and film makers have done the trip – and it’s an incredible trip! The picture libraries are flooded with images that, only a couple of years ago were rare and valuable, and so the commercial side is dead. The cost of getting images isn’t going to be recouped by the sale. Five years ago you could count the number of photographs of the Great Hammerhead on the fingers of one hand. Now everyone has dozens.
For the most part, when photographing sharks, there is a suite of species that most photographers can get. Then you are faced with increasing expenses and decreasing likelihood of getting the shots or getting your money back. Unless you have a good contract for a book, or have National Geographic funding you, the sums just don’t add up!
Sharkman: I guess that whilst diving with sharks, you must have had a few close risks. Was there ever a moment when you felt in real danger?
Jeremy: I have had enough encounters with sharks to know how rarely they are a threat. Once, however, I met a crazy Grey Reef shark in the Red Sea that kept swooping around me and charging back and forth for no clear reason. Other than that, the only real scares have been associated with marine mammals. On several occasions I have found that normally non-threatening sharks have gone crazy when I have got in the water with dolphins. I got chased up on to the top of a reef by Silkies in the Red Sea. I got in the water with them as Bottlenose Dolphins passed by. The same sharks had been much more docile half an hour earlier with no dolphins present. The same thing has happened with Grey Reef sharks and Silvertips in other parts of the world. The common factor was, that there were dolphins passing by. My point is this: you have to know what the parameters are, whereby the sharks will not register that you are a potential food item. If you stay within those boundaries you are fine, but if you transgress them …
Sharkman: Very true. Out of all the sharks that you have dived with, do you have a favourite shark and If yes, can you please tell us why?
Jeremy: At the individual level I had a soft spot for an enormous female Bull shark at Walker’s Cay. She turned up first to just about every shark feed there year after year and each time was a little fatter. I named her Bahama Moma. I think the Great Hammerhead – with its incredible size and spikey, scything fins – is one of my favourite species.
Jeremy: If I had to name a favourite day with sharks it would have to be the day I spent snorkelling with Oceanic Whitetips and Pilot whales in flat calm, perfect offshore conditions off Hawaii. That was magical.
Sharkman: Must be one hell of an experience. Your adventures have taken you all over the world (except here in Malta I think). Do you have a favourite shark diving site?
Jeremy: Perhaps – though I haven’t been there for years: the south west point of Sanganeb Atoll in the Sudanese Red Sea. This is a superb promontory with wonderful hard coral pinnacles decorated in gaudy soft corals. Grey Reef sharks are common there and schooling hammerheads often hang out beyond the reef. There are also mighty schools of other fishes and dozens and dozens of hefty groupers. It is just the most wonderful setting I know for taking photographs of sharks on coral reefs.
Sharkman: Besides photographing sharks, you are also very much interested in Egyptian archaeology right? How did this start?
Jeremy: I was interested in Egyptology from childhood. I even tried to learn hieroglyphics as a child. I made numerous trips to the Egyptian Red Sea and once had a few days to kill between trips, so I went to Luxor and that was the start of that. I was so frustrated at not understanding the inscriptions or what was going on in the magnificent ruins that I decided to study the subject properly.
Jeremy: That led into what is now my main photographic interest: documenting archaeological sites in various parts of the world.
Sharkman: Well I guess then that you have to come to Malta. Our archaeological treasures are many. Jeremy, you are also a founder and trustee of the Shark Trust. Please tell us about this organisation.
Jeremy: This is a UK-based charity concerned with shark (and other cartilaginous fish) conservation. Part of our work is to educate the public about the reality of sharks. Although we are a relatively small organisation, we have superb staff and a number of heavyweights, both in our ranks and as our associates. For instance, we recently organised the European Elasmobranch Association Conference at the Zoological Society of London (London Zoo) and had shark scientists attending from all around the world. We are involved in a great deal of crucial lobbying and ministerial-level work that the general public knows little about: we try to address the roots of the conservation problems.
Sharkman: Back to underwater photography. How hard is it for a diver to take it up and what advice would you give?
Jeremy: Anyone with a sense of the tragic can take up underwater photography. When I first started, it was an achievement to get the flash gun to fire, and finish the dive with an unflooded camera. Compared to photography in air, UW photography is absurdly difficult, which is why most underwater photographers are divers who took up photography. I suppose the technical side is easier now with the digital revolution. However, your average topside photographer would find it far too challenging, and the success rate pathetically pitiable. When I use a camera on land, I almost feel as if I am cheating it’s so easy! My advice to anyone who wants to take up UW photography is: don’t! Do something sensible like climbing Mount Everest blindfolded or rowing around the world in a bath tub. Underwater photography kills the diving and turns you into a self-absorbed, humourless, depressed, monomanical weirdo. You develop a strange fetish called O-Ringphilia: the obsessive cleaning and greasing of O-rings. Do you seriously think the buddy system works with underwater photographers? That an underwater photographer would drop his camera to save his buddy? Forget it! An underwater photographer would never even know if his buddy was drowning.
Sharkman: That is why I have never dived with my brother since he took it up many years ago!! What message do you try to get across in your pictures?
Jeremy: All photographs are photographs, but not all photographs are pictures. Over the years I have whittled down the kinds of images I want to see published. In the case of sharks, my interest nowadays, is to portray them as vibrant and spectacular denizens of the marine environment. To try (oh immodest claim!) to suggest that they belong there and are not prognathous brutes, not flesh-gulping bundles of tooth-fringed muscle, that we are entitled to slaughter in mind-boggling numbers (did I just say that?) I am sick to death of all the jaw-gaping, wailing-and-gnashing-of-teeth photos that the media usually wants to portray sharks.
Sharkman: That brings me to the next question. How do you view the shark situation in general at the moment?
Jeremy: Not good. We have to generate and sustain international outrage at what is happening to sharks around the world. This would then provide the momentum, not only for banning the shark fin trade, and allowing only sustainable shark fishing, but also the determination to enforce the ban, to stamp out the gangster side of the industry. It is relatively easy to convince people that sharks aren’t much of a threat to humans, but whenever there is a shark attack, the media relapses into generating hysteria by claiming the reverse is true. I tried to watch a shark program on TV a couple of nights ago and gave up after a few minutes because the voice-over was so idiotic. The commentator described sharks as “assassins” and “deadly predators that roam free and fearless”. I couldn’t stomach it.
Sharkman: Some reporters never learn. Thank god there are people like you who show the true image in your books. Your “Shark: A photographer’s story” ranks as one of the best ever published. Your other books are also very good. Are there more in the pipe line?
Jeremy: I am working on a children’s story about a baby Basking shark with Marc Dando, the absolutely brilliant illustrator of the Collins Guide to Sharks. There are some topside projects in the pipeline. Having seen an advanced copy of Leonard Compagno and Sarah Fowler’s Collins Guide to Sharks, I don’t think many other people will be bothering to write shark books for a few years at least (subtle plug).
Sharkman: Well I wish you a lot of sales, but make sure you let me know when it is published. Is there a final comment or message that you would like to pass on to our readers?
Jeremy: Spread the word about sharks and get involved.
Sharkman: Jeremy, it was a pleasure to have you here, and thank you for accepting to give us this interview.
Jeremy: I didn’t accept – you’ve been pestering me for years to do this interview and it was the only way to get rid of you.
Sharkman: I am glad you did, otherwise I would have had to introduce you to my two best friends… Smith & Weston!!
Books by Jeremy Stafford-Deitsch
1) Shark: A photographer's story (1987)
2) Reef: A safari through the coral world(1991)
3) Mangrove- the forgotten habitat (1996)
4) Red Sea Sharks (In Depth Diver's Guides) (1999)
5) Sharks of Florida, the Bahamas, the Caribbean and the Gulf of Mexico (In Depth Divers' Guide) (2001)
6) The Monuments of Ancient Egypt (2001)