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Answering the Call

The Marine photography of Thomas Peschak

A prototype electromagnetic shark-deterring surfboard gets a test run at South Africa’s Aliwal Shoal Marine Protected Area. The device may help manage future encounters between surfers and sharks. Photo by Thomas Peschak
CREDITS | By Stephen Frink; captions by Thomas Peschak

In Wild Seas, his new book published by National Geographic, Thomas Peschak ponders his career path: “My life as a National Geographic photographer has been socially isolating, emotionally exhausting and physically demanding — but it is the most rewarding pursuit I can imagine. I have cried from loneliness, felt nauseous with fear and cursed in frustration. But every time I thought I was at my limit, I discovered untapped reservoirs of strength, creativity and passion. This is not a job; it’s a calling.”

Earlier in life, Peschak thought his calling was to be a marine biologist. That had been his dream since he was 10 years old, and the only way National Geographic factored in was perhaps to cite his work in one of their articles. His heroes were the marine scientists conducting the research documented by the text, not the photographers making the images that graced the pages.
At Little Farmer’s Cay in the Bahamas, green sea turtles associate the sound of fishers cracking conch shells with a free meal. The conch meat is exported to the U.S. and beyond, while the turtles eagerly eat what is discarded. The fishers’ parents and grandparents regularly caught and ate sea turtles, but today’s generation has a different relationship with these marine reptiles. Tourism is becoming more critical to the survival of outer island communities, and the turtles play an essential part in community tourism projects.
In 1999, when Peschak was a 24-year-old immersed in Ph.D. research on abalone, he had an epiphany. At his favorite bay near Africa’s southernmost tip, he had marked hundreds of individual abalone by gluing numbers to the backs of their shells. He extensively documented their movement and behavior within their kelp-forest home. Months of observation had revealed each one’s unique characteristics. Over a single night, however, poachers took almost all of them, leaving the shells in a lifeless heap on the seafloor. Their flesh, worth $200 a pound, was likely bound for Asian seafood markets. This moment of despair precipitated his career change.

“Abalone Armageddon” is Peschak’s term for a situation so dire that the millions of abalone poached in South Africa each year made extinction in the wild a real possibility. Despite the dangers of illegal harvesting, his statistics and science did not seem to inspire change, but the photographs he took to illustrate his reports began to resonate. Community newspapers and regional magazine began to publish his photos. The images were unrefined compared to his later work, but they reflected his passion as he told a story he knew intimately. His photos made an impact, so he left science to pursue a career as a conservation photographer.
Globally, shark populations have declined dramatically over the past century; some regional studies report declines of more than 90 percent for some species. Oceans without sharks would be like Yellowstone without bears or the Serengeti without lions. This photo shows a single boat’s catch of silky sharks laid out in an orderly grid. The angular puzzle of fins pointed to the sky resembles crosses in a military cemetery.
He loaded his Land Rover and explored 4,000 miles of southern Africa’s coastline with the idea of photographing the marine wilderness. While most photographers there focused on terrestrial safari images, he concentrated on the underwater world. Before South Africa was a mainstream destination for great white sharks and its famed sardine run, Peschak was there with his camera, getting noticed and publishing articles and photos in natural history, dive and travel magazines.

For his real underwater photography breakthrough, he credits not the abalone coverage or the great white sharks he captured feasting on a whale carcass but rather freediving with manta rays in the Maldives in 2008. He describes it as follows:

“I am in a giant vortex of hundreds of feeding manta rays. With 9-foot wingspans, these animals create their own current, delivering a bounty of zooplankton toward their gaping mouths. I am hypnotized by their beauty and gobsmacked by the scale. As I prepare to make another photograph, intense spasms rattle my diaphragm. I’ve stayed down too long; the precious oxygen I hastily inhaled at the surface two minutes before is almost exhausted. My body gives a final warning to return to the surface or risk losing consciousness. As the level of carbon dioxide in my blood increases, my lungs burn as if lined with stinging nettles. But before I can take a breath, I have to ascend 50 feet to the surface through a shifting, Tetris-like puzzle of mantas. Mantas are benign, but during a feeding frenzy they are oblivious to their surroundings. As I ascend, the rays crash into each other like 2,000-pound bumper cars. Eventually, I navigate through the gauntlet of wings, break the surface, and gasp in euphoric relief.”  

As a dive safety publication, Alert Diver always considers the importance of being aware of the potential dangers of freediving and the fatal implications of shallow-water blackout. Peschak obviously survived, and in 2008 some of those photos attracted the attention of Kathy Moran, National Geographic’s senior photo editor. The manta ray feeding orgy at Hanifaru appeared in National Geographic just a year later, and now Peschak has contributed 15 stories over the past 13 years.
I was so tired and cold that sitting in a stream of penguin poo to steal a few minutes of rest was, at the time, a perfectly acceptable option. Despite the foul stench, I was absorbed in reviewing my images. When I looked up 10 minutes later, I was surrounded by a gang of fluffy king penguin chicks that had waddled more than 100 feet to investigate. They were some of the most curious animals I have ever encountered.
Stephen Frink: How do your National Geographic assignments work now? Do they find a topic of interest to their readership and send you off?

Thomas Peschak: Not anymore. The days of sitting around waiting for an assignment are long gone. Instead, I dedicate extensive time and research to finding stories. I might be contemplating 10 ideas, but when one gels, I dive into the preparation. The idea becomes an obsession, and I think of little else. I read hundreds of scientific papers, dozens of books and speak to as many experts as I can find. If the magazine accepts my story pitch, the work may absorb the next two years of my life, so it is not a casual proposition.

The photography, the actual click of the shutter release, is the easiest part. I often have a full year of buildup, planning and imagining what the individual photographs and the visual story arc might look like. No one would torture themselves during the preshoot research phase if they weren’t deeply committed, but I love the detective work. Almost every story I’ve ever done has had a conservation issue at its core, which helps keep me motivated.
A photograph from the 1890s shows a once-massive African penguin colony on Namibia’s Halifax Island in stark contrast to the scene I photographed in 2017. The demand for their guano (bird excrement used for fertilizer) and eggs were principal drivers of the dramatic population decline from more than 100,000 to about 2,000 today. Ongoing overfishing of sardines, the penguins’ preferred prey, and climate change prevent these charismatic seabirds from recovering to historical numbers.
How do you identify a story that needs to be visual and can have an impact on conservation?

I like to go to unfamiliar places and tell stories that others have not told. That’s harder these days because not many places are totally off the radar. Even with a familiar place, I think about approaching a story differently and pioneering a viewpoint. I look at photos every day for a week or two and attempt to find every photograph ever made on the topic. My single-minded objective is to discover how I might do it differently and better.

When I was recently in the Galápagos, I wanted to get better photos than anyone had yet taken, but I felt everything had been seen before. I went there expecting to see certain animals and was not disappointed by the photo opportunities. How would you cover the Galápagos, for example, with that goal in mind?

I once spent a week at Darwin Island photographing nothing but silky sharks rubbing themselves against whale sharks to remove parasites. I shot some hammerhead frames as well, but I knew that I would need to devote most of my time to the whale sharks and that it would be fine if I came home without an iconic hammerhead photograph. If I make just one unique image, that’s an outstanding week on location. For the Galápagos National Geographic article, however, I lived in the islands for six months shooting both terrestrial and marine images. I came home with 15 to 20 iconic images and am pleased with that body of work. I sleep well at night knowing that I could not have worked any harder or prepared more rigorously.
Macaroni penguins climb toward the summit of a sea cliff. This unique penguin nesting and molting site is along the western edge of Marion Island. Despite being nearly 1,200 miles southeast of Cape Town, Marion is South African territory and has an important scientific research station.
Very few clients will support that kind of immersion into a destination these days.

I’m among the few fortunate souls — along with David Doubilet, Brian Skerry and Paul Nicklen — who  get to regularly share our ocean imagery with more than 100 million people. Fifteen stories for National Geographic is a pretty good run for me so far, and I know how immensely fortunate I am. It is not always easy though. I’m 46 now, which may not seem old, but spending 90 percent of your life either researching or shooting on location for an assignment is all-consuming. Nothing comes for free. Telling these stories takes nothing less than a total personal investment. I regularly mentor emerging young photographers; while many of them are extraordinary image makers, few are willing to sacrifice so much to live the life.
A cape gannet flies low over Malgas Island, trying to land as close to its partner and nest as possible. If the bird lands too far away, it will have to run through the crowded colony, enduring a gauntlet of stabbing beaks. These gannets can get intense and vicious when dealing with interlopers.
Tell me a little about your early years. Yours is a unique path, so how did you get here?

I was born in Hamburg, Germany, to adventurous parents who were passionate boaters. I began snorkeling at age 10, and I still freedive for most of my photography. We dived together and got scuba certified as a family.

I was a nerdy kid interested in all things underwater. Jacques Cousteau books and fish ID guides were my obsession, and marine biology became my overriding passion by age 12. At 14 I had my first camera, a Minolta Weathermatic that used 110 cartridge film, but photography hadn’t hooked me yet. Instead I wanted to be a scientist looking at sleeping sharks or diving with Weddell seals in the Antarctic. I was a dive instructor by age 18.
Gray whale mothers in Baja California’s San Ignacio Lagoon once weaponized their powerful tail flukes to smash whaling boats and protect their calves. The scene now could not be more different, and gray whales have made a remarkable comeback. In just a single century, our relationship with them went from being dominated by fear and violence to engaging in mutual curiosity. The whales determine their interactions with boats full of whale-watching enthusiasts and will often surface right next to visitors to have their heads scratched. These interspecific interactions began to occur in the 1970s, and mothers seem to be passing on this new aspect of whale culture to their calves.
After my experience with abalone photography in graduate school, I had one foot firmly in science and one in visual arts. I finally decided to rip off the bandage. Spendng two years as a photo nomad living out of my Land Rover and photographing throughout southern Africa probably set the hook. I had some astonishing adventures. It was different then on the sardine run — for example, you wouldn’t see eight boats on a single baitball. Doug Perrine and I were two of the first photographers to comprehensively document baitball behavior, but he was already underwater photography royalty at that time.

After working six weeks a year for seven years to get the ultimate baitball shots, my best images were from just two baitballs. The sardine run in southern Africa happens in mid-winter when the seas can be rough, and you launch from exposed beaches into visibility affected by river runoff. Many days I’ve spent eight hours at sea and came home with nothing good. But one day in 2007, a Bryde’s whale charged from below, engulfed the entire sardine baitball, breached and crashed back into the water just 3 feet from me. Ninety thousand pounds of whale was an arm’s length away, and I was there to get the picture! My friends on the nearby boat thought the whale had landed on my head, but luckily for me the wave from the breach had pushed me out of the way. Capturing moments like that is what I live for and makes spending eight hours at sea each day with just one photo to show for it worthwhile.

For many stories I spend up to 10 hours a day in the water freediving and observing interesting behaviors from above. When the time is right, I move in to make the photograph. Interacting that way with turtles, seals, whales or dolphins seems more relaxed without using scuba, which can be noisy and intrusive for marine wildlife. Howard and Michele Hall captured their images through long days and patience. While some of their images are now 30 years old, they remain the benchmark for natural history underwater photography. Spending lots of time in the sea and having a deep understanding of animal behavior are essential if you want to make similarly iconic and memorable photographs.

Tell me about your new book, Wild Seas.
Writing and imaging for books is now my true passion. I dive deep into a single subject for an assignment and often get way more images than even a 30-page National Geographic feature needs, so books are a great way for me to tell a more comprehensive story. I’ve created seven books to date, and Wild Seas, published by National Geographic, is the latest. It is a mid-career retrospective with nearly 20 years distilled into a 270-page volume. In addition to my 200 favorite photographs, it tells the story of my transformation from marine biologist to National Geographic photographer. I wanted to reveal the rarely seen trials and tribulations behind the images and vividly recount my adventures exploring some of the wildest ocean locales on our planet.
Great White Shark, South African Coast

When I began work on a book about great white sharks almost 20 years ago, I had no idea it would yield my most well-known image. I worked with scientists at the White Shark Trust for more than 10 months to create novel images of great whites off South Africa. When they struggled to track sharks in the shallows, I suggested using a kayak as a less-obtrusive research platform.

The story of this photograph begins with a perfectly calm sea. I had harnessed myself to the research boat’s tower, precariously leaning over the ocean, making images of the scientists tracking sharks, when a very bold shark dived to the seabed to inspect the kayak from below.

I trained my camera on the nebulous shadow as it slowly transformed into the sleek silhouette of a large great white. When the dorsal fin emerged, I thought I had the shot but hesitated a fraction of a second. At that moment, the researcher in the kayak turned to look behind him, and I hit the shutter. Instead of the scientist tracking the shark, the shark was now tracking the scientist.

I knew the image would be iconic, but I was not prepared for the public response. The photo attracted more than 100,000 visitors to my website in the first 24 hours after I published it. In a world without social media, that was considered viral. But then things took an unexpected turn, as many suspected the photo was a digital fake, and some websites still debate its authenticity. The image is real and was one of the last I took using slide film before transitioning to digital. All versions of this photo come from a high-resolution scan of the slide with no postproduction adjustments.

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