Underwater Photography Journal: Tiger Sharks in the Philippines

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How do you know if there’s a tiger shark swimming nearby if you can’t see it?

I was asking myself this very question on an underwater photography documentary expedition to the Western Philippines a few years ago. It didn’t take very long to start seeing the clues.

On the second day of diving, I saw a three-legged sea turtle swim lopsidedly past. Its birdlike eyes warily scanned a sunlit expanse of coral garden on Tubbataha’s South Island atoll in the middle of the Sulu Sea. The crippled green slowed cautiously as it approached the edge of the reef wall plunging cliff-like into the inky depths below. To be fair, this turtle could be considered lucky—it only lost a leg. For many others the first glimpse of the striped torpedo of a tiger shark barreling out of the deep would have been the last thing they ever saw.

I’ll admit I watched ‘Jaws’ a few too many times when I was a kid, this probably explains why I think about sharks when I should be thinking about how to bring back some new underwater photos. But the ‘Jaws’ reminders were a little too easy to find on this trip.

I caught my first glimpse of a Tubbataha tiger in the dim light of early morning the following day. The sun was just passing the Sulu Sea horizon when we spotted the iconic dorsal fin knifing effortlessly through the mirror-flat water. Under the cover of a moonless night only a few hours before, the shark had easily ambushed unsuspecting victims; but in the gathering daylight it seemed to sense its own vulnerability.

The shark swam faster as our small outboard dingy from the WWF reef survey ship Minerva drew closer. The small engine whined as we matched the shark’s speed, and when we were right beside it I plunged my camera into the rushing water, snapping a few frames before the shark vanished into the safety of deep water with a few powerful sweeps of its tail.

The rest of the day passed without a tiger shark sighting and by the end of an amazing day of diving and new underwater photos I had almost cleared the ‘Jaws’ highlights from my mind.

But we still a night dive on the day’s schedule, and it happened to be at the same spot where we had seen the three-legged sea turtles earlier in the day.

So there I was on a dark, moonless night with my legs were dangling helplessly beneath me into the inky black sea while we prepared to dive. I imagined the sharks were prowling again—remember the opening scene of ‘Jaws’ where the girl swims at night (and gets eaten)?

I tried to clear Spielberg’s scary camera angles out of my mind as I hastily checked the scuba equipment. I wanted to get underwater where I didn’t feel so vulnerable. I don’t know if my dive buddies were thinking the same thing, but everyone seemed to want to get under quickly.

Enveloped in a storm of silvery bubbles as we submerged, we swam towards a wide plateau of coral reef about ten meters deep. I felt a lot more comfortable down among the corals and not bobbing helplessly on the surface for a passing tiger to swipe at.

My flashlight cast an eerie greenish glow around me as I looked for night animals to photograph. Just to be safe, I pointed the flashlight towards the coral wall where I knew the dropoff plunged for more than 100 feet—the perfect hunting grounds for an opportunistic tiger shark.

The beam cast a feeble light, but enough to illuminate a four-foot reef shark ghosting by, its eyes gleamed back unblinkingly. Bad idea.

Nervous, I swam a little closer to my dive buddies who were hovering over a large coral formation taking photos. Without realizing that I had strayed too close, one of them gave an unexpected kick and knocked the air regulator out of my mouth.

Bubbles surrounded me and I could hear the air gushing from my tank. I fumbled to grab the hose and put the regulator back in my mouth and start breathing again. I already felt my chest getting tight as I held my breath. They didn’t realize I was in trouble.

With the underwater camera strapped to one wrist and the flashlight on the other, it was a lot harder than usual to find the air hose without getting everything tangled. A lung-burning minute passed before I could get a hold of the regulator and everything was ok again.

Maybe better to explore the reef during the day and leave it to the sharks at night?

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The photos are gorgeous. Hard to believe there is a place like that on earth. Especially enjoyed the story to go along with the photos, makes everything more real. Thank you for sharing.