The Jaws of Love
The Internet is a truly incredible medium. Sometimes, while being in search for something, you accidentally run into unexpected resources. This article is dedicated to exactly that kind of discovery, which turned into quite an unusual article for our magazine.
In light of the recent shark attacks on tourists in Egypt, I was looking for more details about those incidents. Sharks had always been one of my biggest fears, so this kind of events interest me a lot. While searching for images, I accidentally stumbled upon a blog called Oceanic Dreams. Apart from a huge amount of articles on the life of sharks, I have discovered grainy black and white photos of extraordinary beauty. This was not just a descent into an underwater world, it was more like shifting into an alien dimension never before presented to the human eye - mystical shots from the life of animals which many of us see in their worst nightmares. On these photos of indescribable beauty, before me appeared tiger sharks of such sizes that weren’t even named in many encyclopedias. After some time a question came up in my head: “Who is this madman that comes so close and so often to these ocean dwellers?”
The captions under the photographs led me to their author. Wolfgang Leander, a 70-year old Bolivian of German descent, regularly does what most shark experts can only dream about. For many years Wolfgang has not only swam very close with sharks, but has also been interacting with them as if he was at a dolphinarium. The sharks have learned to trust him, letting Wolfgang capture breathtaking photos from their lives. Not only that he spends time underwater with these creatures so calmly, he also does it without scuba diving equipment. Leander is the only freediver who is allowed to dive with the tiger sharks of the Bahamas. Instead of using heavy professional underwater equipment, he prefers to feel one with the ocean, trying not to stand out too much in this underwater realm of sharks. When you learn what kind of equipment he uses for photographing, his work seems even more incredible.
Wolfgang’s love for sharks made him their devoted protector. Together with his son Felix, he regularly leads underwater excursions into the world of tiger sharks of the Bahamas. He considers sharks to be one of the least understood marine animals. His mission has become to oppose ignorant TV-producers and journalists who present sharks as dangerous man-eaters, including Discovery channel, whose shows he had labelled as “shark pornography”. In their Oceanic Dreams blog, father and son display to the readers a world of sharks as few have seen it. Shark defenders like Wolfgang are of the opinion that it’s sharks who need to be protected from humans and not the other way around.
Filip: How long have you been diving with sharks? Why did you decide to do it?
Wolfgang: On and off since 1968 when I dived for the first time in the Caribbean. About 15 years ago I began diving exclusively with sharks. Sharks always fascinated me; I was six years old when I first saw grainy black and white photographs of sharks, that was in 1947. Sharks are, to me, the most magnificent, and, unfortunately, least understood, marine creatures.
F: Is underwater photography a professional occupation or more like a hobby to you?
W: Hobby. I earned my daily bread as an international banker. Photography, both on land and underwater, has been one of my life-long passions.
F: Why do you prefer free-diving to using professional diving equipment?
W: I don't like having cumbersome equipment on my body; it makes me feel as a stranger in the underwater world. I'd rather hold my breath than breathing underwater - it is not natural for mammals. Freediving gives me the feeling of freedom; it is a mental excercise more than a physical challenge. Freeidvers find it easier to get close to large animals than SCUBA divers. I have dived only four times with tanks back in 1968 - didn't find it appealing. Also, I was an avid undersea hunter for many decades. Spearfishermen always freedive.
F: Tell me about your tools of the trade: what kind of equipment do you use for underwater photography?
W: Very simple: An old mechanical Nikonos V, a 28 and 20mm lens. No flash, available light only.
F: I have noticed that you give preference to black and white photographs. Why is that so?
W: Black and white photographs have a moody and graphic dimension that, in my view, cannot be matched by color images. Apart from that, the first underwater photographs I ever saw were all black and white. I guess the graphic impact these images had on me has never faded.
F: What are your favourite shark diving locations?
W: The Bahamas and South Africa. The reason is simple: I love to dive with tiger sharks, and the Bahamas and South Africa are the only places where you can dive with these magnificent creatures regularly.
F: In your blog you have often criticized Discovery for their portrayal of sharks as violent man-eating animals. Could you define the term ‘shark porn’?
W: Unfortunately, the media prefer to portray sharks as "dangerous", "aggressive", "man-eaters". These attributes are all false but they "sell". The term "shark porn" was first mentioned by the very people who pretend to educate and entertain the general public with the yearly Shark Week features. To attract viewers the Discovery Channel producers show a lot of teeth and blood, and focus on sharks attacks which happen very rarely - about 100 incidents per year of which between 5 and 10 are fatal - rather than enlightening the uninformed about the truth. Showing sharks as 'monsters of the deep' or 'senseless killing machines' seem appeal to some deep and archaic fears of being eaten alive. Thus, sensationalistic reports about dangerous sharks are in a way as crude and misleading as is pornography meant to substitute eroticism and love.
F: Have you ever felt fear while being underwater with sharks? Have there been any life-threatening situations or moments when something went wrong?
W: No. When I was not very experienced, I was circumspect in the presence of sharks, and I observed their body language in different circumstances keenly. With the knowledge I have since acquired, I feel very comfortable with sharks, even with large specimens. Sharks are quite predictable - but you have to know their behavior intimately.
F: Most experts warn people against trying to get in contact with large sharks, yet you manage to seemingly effortlessly interact with some gigantic specimens. So the obvious question is: how do you do it? What is your secret?
W: My "secret"? As I said, sharks are highly intelligent and sensitive. They are fast learners. Lemon sharks learn 40 times faster than cats. Sharks have a memory that has been tested to last approximately one year. Sharks are cautious, yet curious - as are most animals. I respect sharks, and I love them deeply - which are feelings that probably translate into a behavior on my part that makes them feel comfortable.
F: You seem to enjoy the company of tiger sharks the most. What is it about them that fascinates you?
W: Their impressive size, their shape, their heads, their "cool" approach - they are very imposing and tend to come VERY close to you when they feel comfortable. Tiger sharks are, comparatively speaking, extremely gentle. In general, they are absolutely non-aggressive. People who have not dived with them might fear them because they have a bad reputation - undeservededly. Yes, they have extremeley strong jaws, teeth that work like a saw. Tiger sharks are the only sharks that can crack the shells of sea turtles. That and the fact that they scavangers and indiscriminate eaters make them so fearsome. Tiger sharks will bite and swallow cameras if they want to investigate their edibility - that happens relatively often. It is probably the electric fields around cameras with metal housings that provoke them to perform a test bite.
F: You have dived with some of the world’s largest and most dangerous sharks: the tiger sharks, lemon sharks, hammerheads. But have you ever tried diving with a great white? Most experts say that it is near impossible to interact with an adult great white and remain in one piece. Or is it just another man-made stereotype about sharks?
W: I believe that is what you said: Another man-made stereotype which is not to say that one should have a healthy respect for these master predators when diving with them. Just their size can be intimidating, not unlike the size of full-grown tiger sharks which can both easily reach 5m. The largest white and tiger sharks ever caught measured close to 7m
F: What are the most common misconceptions about sharks?
W: 1) Sharks are NOT dangerous per se - circumstances can be although it is extremely unlikely that divers will find themselves in such situations;
2) sharks do NOT have to eat all the time (some species can go, rather swim, without eating for as long as 10-12 days);
3) sharks do NOT consume people (humans are not part of their diet);
4) human blood does NOT attract sharks (scientifically proven to be a myth).
5) sharks ARE intelligent and sensitive (not at all "brainless eating machines or killers").