© Copyright Keith Ellenbogen ~ 360 VR footage by Keith Ellenbogen
Post-Production by the Charles Hayden Planetarium, Museum of Science, Boston
The 360˚VR video was recorded using a professional underwater 4K 360˚VR camera system. Viewers can rotate the point of view to get the shark’s view of me and my view of the shark. A version for 360˚VR headsets is in development!
On August 17 I set sail from Scituate, MA on an 18 nautical mile journey to the southeast corner of Stellwagen Bank National Marine Sanctuary (SBNMS) onboard the Auk, a 50 ft research vessel operated by NOAA and SBNMS. Once in the sanctuary we deployed a small rubber inflatable boat (RIB) in search of marine animals to photograph, such as sea turtles, mola mola or ocean sunfish, sharks, seabirds and more. From the RIB we saw a dorsal fin breaking the surface and moving very slowly. Unsure if this was a mola mola, blueshark, white shark, or basking shark, we spent a few moments watching its behavior from the surface. We quickly ruled out mola mola and then blue and white sharks because the creature was moving so slowly. When it made a large circle – a behavior typically associated with basking sharks – we all agreed it was a large basking shark. I must admit I have never seen a basking shark, and this is one of those iconic animals I was excited to photograph. The ocean conditions were perfect – no wind with calm seas that were flat like glass.
Our plan was to position the RIB about 100ft upcurrent from the basking shark and then I would swim towards it. Once the RIB was in position, I slid into the water in my wetsuit, snorkel and 360˚VR camera. Mentally I was breathing shallow as I was prepared to free dive to capture images of the basking shark with its mouth open, feeding on plankton. Once in the water with a sense of excitement and my 360 multi-camera system, I slowly started kicking towards the basking shark. I alternated between looking above the water to track the shark’s fin on the surface while waiting for a glimpse of the animal to reveal itself through the water. The water visibility in New England is about 20ft on a good day like today. The coastal waters off Massachusetts are turbid with limited visibility and that makes photographing large animals, a technical challenge.
On the surface, I was breathing shallow and getting ready to dive. After about 10 seconds of uninterrupted emerald green sea with dancing waves of sunlight and a feeling of excitement, I arrived within 25ft of the shark and got my first glimpse of the animal. I immediately realized this was not a basking shark but rather an enormous Great White Shark swimming straight towards me, and I was swimming straight towards it! We later estimated the size at 16ft long, 6ft wide and about 2,000 lbs – about the same size as the NOAA RIB. I found myself swimming in close proximity to a very big and dangerous fish!
I immediately stopped swimming forward. At that moment, time moved slowly. I was not sure what to expect from the shark and just put myself into a trance and said enjoy the moment. During this ten second encounter, I kept my heartbeat slow and steady, my body language predictable and firm and the camera stable to get the shot. My trajectory was such that I was headed straight towards the mouth of the shark and I could not change direction. Perfect placement for a basking shark and not ideal for a great white shark. As we approached each other, I could hardly believe how big this shark was. I was approaching so close that I pulled the 3ft pole of the 360VR camera closer to myself to avoid bumping into the animal. In the video you can see the micro movements I was making with my hand to slow down my speed and avert a crash.
As I as approached its giant face and teeth, what I remember most is its strong and direct eye contact. Fortunately, the shark did not change its behavior or trajectory. I think it was in a catatonic sleep-like state. I wonder if its ever been approached by another living animal before and what was it thinking? I’m fortunate, in that I have lots of experience filming other sharks such as blue, makos, and bull sharks in the wild and am comfortable in extreme situations. Panic is never a solution. I knew I was committed and that all I could do was enjoy this experience and get the shot.
From the surface, the team realized that I was swimming with a Great White Shark probably a few seconds before I did. They all said I was so close to the shark that its fin and my snorkel were almost touching. Everyone was so nervous but there was nothing they could do other then watch the entire event unfold. From the boat people expressed a sense of fear of a shark that was the size of the RIB. Fortunately, they did not accelerate the engine or do anything that might have startled the shark. I was lucky that we drifted by each other, and once past the shark, I immediately raised my hands and called the NOAA boat over. I threw my camera onboard and pulled myself onboard in record time.
It was such a beautiful, majestic animal, I’m glad I had this once-in-a-lifetime encounter, and I’m fortunate that I have the rest of my lifetime to contemplate it!
For more information, contact Keith Ellenbogen at 646-234-9473 or firstname.lastname@example.org