A lovely shepherdess in a flowing white dress tends to her flock in these gorgeous photographs reminiscent of a fairy tale. The twist: the shepherdess is underwater, and her charges are white-tipped reef sharks. The image is part of the latest series from conservation photographer Benjamin Wong, AKA Von Wong, who has a bit of an adventurous streak, taking his models into the field for a bit of storm-chasing and to underwater shipwrecks — all in the name of capturing that perfect shot. This time, he took model Amber Bourke to Fiji, a hot spot for ecotourism specialising in shark dives.
But his focus isn't on thrill-seeking or purely aesthetic pursuits; in this case, he wanted to draw attention to the plight of sharks worldwide. "Sharks are almost always depicted as menacing and terrifying, yet it is humans that are responsible for killing them in the millions just to make soup," he wrote on his blog. "I wanted to create a series of images that would help break those stereotypes." He got the idea for a Shark Shepherdess because, in terms of how they help maintain ecological balance in their habitat, "Sharks are the shepherds of the sea."
It's no easy feat to shoot underwater. There is limited oxygen, for one thing. For every take, von Wong would weigh down Bourke (with oxygen mask and scuba tank) amid a pretty rock formation, in all her white-dressed glory, and wait for sharks to swim by. When that happened, Bourke would take a deep breath and remove her mask, striking a pose until her oxygen ran out. And there was just a two-hour window in which to accomplish all this: the sharks were active, and the light was right, only between 11am and 1pm local time.
Fortunately, Bourke is no stranger to diving and snorkelling with sharks — or at holding her breath for long periods of time underwater. A former synchronised swimmer, she took up free diving after a hip injury kept her from competing in that sport. "I've always been passionate about the underwater world, and I love diving with sharks and other marine creatures," she told Gizmodo. "The sharks didn't worry me. It was pretty obvious during the shoot that they weren't the least bit interested in us." In fact, they behaved more like timid squirrels, swimming off if any human got too close.
But she admitted the shoot proved more challenging than expected. "Once I had taken off the mask, I couldn't see much," she said. "A lot of the time I was left wondering if the sharks had swum off and I was just sitting there holding my breath for nothing."
Also on hand was marine biologist and shark expert Thomas Vignaud (Tourism Fiji and Barefoot Collection), who ensured that the shoot adhered to local rules governing shark dives, and kept everyone safe. "We never hand feed [the sharks], or let the food close to the surface where our guests are," he told Gizmodo. "We don't want the sharks to associate food with close proximity to people." Instead, he hid a small amount of food in holes near the underwater site. "We only give a very small portion of food every day so the sharks still have to hunt," he explained.
It's easy to be cynical about these kinds of altruistic efforts to raise awareness of these kinds of ecological issues; one could argue that, in the long run, they have very little real impact. But that doesn't mean such projects are not worth doing, or have no value — especially if the end result is eye-popping photographs like these.
"Shark populations around the world are being decimated and people either don't know about it or they don't care, because the majority of people have learned to fear sharks," said Bourke. "I think anything that brings attention to the plight of sharks and the marine ecosystem is worth doing."
Images courtesy of Ben Wong/von Wong.