Schooling Sand Tigers
The Story Behind The Shot
Images & Text by Mike Gerken
©All Rights Reserved
Schooling Sand Tigers - July 2015
Planning, patience and persistence are often required to get "The Shot". "Schooling Sand Tigers" of North Carolina was one image I spent years trying to achieve. I started diving the wrecks of North Carolina in the late 90's and worked as a captain there for six seasons with Olympus Dive Center in Morehead City, NC. In that time, myself and others began to notice a pattern of animal behavior year after year on one particular wreck. Every mid-July female sand tigers congregate on the Caribsea located on the east side of Lookout Shoals. Where normally a diver can spot a few dozen sharks scattered around the wreck on the bottom, at this time they concentrate in numbers of 100+ and school in mid-water above the thermocline. Simply put, this is an awe-inspiring sight to see. In any one group of sharks you can count up to 50+ animals and to see several groups at a time. On occasions I could merge with the school and find myself immersed in sharks. Above me, below me and 360 degrees around me; sharks everywhere!
Schooling Sand Tigers - July 2019
Getting the Shot
To capture an image of a school of sand tigers such as the one above, you must shoot super wide angle and drop back far enough to fit them all in one frame. All to often the visibility does not cooperate to do this and the images are grainy and unsharp. By visiting the site as many times as possible in a 2 week period in mid-July, you might get that clear water window.
Other issues to deal with to see schooling sand tigers are:
•Unless you charter a private dive boat you may not get to go to the Caribsea on back to back days which is may be required to find the desirable conditions. The consensus of divers on board the boat may want to dive elsewhere or not even go to the Caribsea to begin with. Dare I say, not everyone is a fanatic about sharks and photography?
•Weather is always a factor in diving North Carolina. The dive sites, are 20-30 miles from shore in the open ocean and getting there is half the battle. The wind and sea doesn't always cooperate and the boats are stuck at the dock while the sand tigers conjoin.
•Although we have identified a distinct pattern of finding schooling sand tigers, they don't always cooperate and huddle up for the shot. They often splinter off into smaller groups coming and going from the area. On one occasion, I discovered a group of sharks 50 strong but they were 200' off the wreck. Trying to focus on the shot and not get lost was difficult not to mention dangerous.
•Having multiple divers in the water at the same time doesn't help the situation. The sharks don't startle easy but they do spread out when a hapless diver swims right through the group. Working around these distractions is a challenge. It is best to dive alone but that is easier said than done.
•The use of strobes can be difficult. Too little power and your aren't illuminating the sharks and the image is monotone. Strobes set too powerful can yield a lot of backscatter, glare and overexposed fish in the foreground. Finding that sweet spot for artificial lighting takes practice.
Why do the sand tigers school in mid-water in mid-July every year on the Caribsea? It is not fully understood. One theory is the sharks are regulating body temperature by dwelling in the warmer water above the thermocline. Why do they need to regulate body temp? That is also not understood. Why do they concentrate in large numbers? Once again, we don't know.
Locales such as the Galapagos or Cocos Island have their famed schooling hammerheads but North Carolina has schooling sand tigers. Now that you know what is required to see this, all you need now is to make the effort. The photo at the header was shot in July of 2015. The first time I saw schooling sand tigers was around 2001. It was nearly 15 years from the time I had the concept for the photo until I got what I wanted. There were many days of trial, error and bad luck but with the use of the three P's mentioned in the first sentence you too can get'er dun.
Join me in North Carolina for the Wreck•Shark Shootout May 26-May 31, 2020. Find all the details at this link.
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