Pete Oxford’s Whale Shark Project is a Rare Positive Conservation Story
November 8, 2017
Pete Oxford photographed whale sharks in Indonesia for a story about the symbiotic relationship between sharks, fishermen and tourists.
Because of climate change, unsustainable resource extraction and other human pressures on the natural environment, conservation photographers spend a lot of time raising alarms. But Pete Oxford’s story about whale sharks in Indonesia is a little oasis amidst all the bad news. “It really resonated for me because it was a positive story for a change about shark conservation,” says Oxford, whose story called “Good Luck Sharks” was recently published by bioGraphic, the online publication of the California Academy of Sciences.
With beautiful, dramatic images of the giant sharks in crystal clear water, the story shows the mutually beneficial relationships of fishermen, tourists and sharks. Indonesia remains one of the worst nations for the cruel practice of shark finning, but the fishermen near West Papua “have long revered whale sharks as harbingers of good luck,” Oxford says. It helps, of course, that the sharks eat plankton, so they’re not competing with the fishermen.
The sharks are also docile and curious. The fishermen jump in and swim with them for the joy of it. “You can get really close to them,” Oxford says. Now eco tourists are paying for the experience, which translates to tourist dollars for the fishermen and their communities, and fundraising opportunities for conservation organizations. “It’s win win win” for sharks, tourists and fishermen, Oxford says.
He ended up shooting the story because the Oceanic Society, a California-based conservation group, had invited him to Indonesia as an eco tour lecturer. Oxford is a conservationist and marine zoologist by training, as well a professional wildlife photographer. The Oceanic Society, he says, “takes me along as a jack of all trades. I do a bit of everything: telling stories, giving photographic tips, preaching conservation and sharing local knowledge.”
Wherever he travels, Oxford is always looking for stories to shoot. He had photographed whale sharks off Mexico and Galapagos, but the trip to Indonesia was his first opportunity to photograph them in such clear water. “I knew from my personal conversations with people at the Oceanic Society how good it could be,” Oxford says. But there were no guarantees of seeing many sharks, and it was a three- or four-day trip, so Oxford wasn’t expecting to get a complete story. He just hoped for a few pictures.
Upon arrival at the fishing grounds, Oxford and other trip organizers quickly found sharks by inquiring among the fishermen. And the fishermen in the immediate vicinity of the sharks helped keep them around—for a fee—by pumping a stream of fish-flavored water off their fishing platforms. Oxford spent hours in the water and on the platform photographing sharks “to get the images I figured I needed,” he says.
He was looking for variety. “I wanted to make sure I got more than one shark. I wanted to make sure I got different angles, including an overhead perspective,” Oxford says. “My approach is to spend as much time observing and learning animal behavior as I can.” By doing that with the whale sharks, he explains, he was able to anticipate their movements and could get in front of them without disturbing them, so they would swim gently past him and allow him to photograph them at close range.
Oxford photographed sharks from as close as a foot away, he says, and he managed to get close-up, head-on photographs of their open mouths. “The fact that I could get so close without disturbing them was really rewarding,” he says. He used a Nikon D7000 with a Tokina 10-17 mm lens, inside a Nauticam housing. (He has since upgraded to a Nikon D500.) Oxford says he shot mostly with available light, which was sufficient because of his proximity to the surface and the clarity of the water. But he also used two Inon Z-240 strobes “to pop in fill flash to light a little bit of the face or eye of the sharks” when he was very close to them.
Besides shooting close-ups, Oxford showed the sharks in relation to the fishing nets and platforms from underwater, topside and in between. “I wanted to show a bit of scale, and how they lazily swim below” the fishing platforms, he says. He photographed tourists and fishermen swimming with them from underwater, with shafts of sunlight diverging in the water. In one overhead image, shot from the boat, the refracting sunlight casts a pattern on a shark that makes the animal’s skin appear bejeweled.
Oxford put some of the images on Facebook, where bioGraphic editors probably saw it and got in touch with him about publishing the story, the photographer says. “I’ve got a relationship with them. I’ve been a judge for their photo competition,” he says. He provided a wide edit of 95 images, from which bioGraphic selected 15 for publication (bioGraphic did not respond to interview requests).
Oxford says images from the project have been published elsewhere, although he hasn’t pitched it aggressively. “I’m not one who dwells on a single story and tries to keep it going for years. I just keep moving. That was one project and then I go on to the next,” says Oxford, who describes himself as a conservation photography generalist. “I go from underwater to terrestrial insects to landscapes to rhino catching. It could be anything.”
The shark story, he says, stands out as for him “as a glimmer of hope in a sea of pretty bad practices with regard to marine resources. If you can build on little spots of hope like this, maybe they will spread out and link up one day.” In the face of all the dire headlines about the environment, a little optimism never hurts.