“Though at first that kayak photograph appears foreboding, its true story is quite the opposite—a tale of wonder, curiosity, coexistence."
3 December 23
It took weeks for marine biologist-turned-photographer Thomas P. Peschak to make his most famous image. Instantly, his photo of a great white shark tailing a yellow kayak off South Africa went viral—and Peschak began carrying his negative of the image around to prove that it was real. But then it kept going viral, for the wrong reasons, meme’d out of context after natural disasters.
These days, the Nat Geo Explorer uses the notoriety for good. “Though at first that kayak photograph appears foreboding, its true story is quite the opposite—a tale of wonder, curiosity, coexistence. From one picture have come countless chances to tell people more about sharks—conversations that often begin in fear and ignorance but end in fascination.”
THE FOLLOWING IS HOW THOMAS P. PESCHAK TELLS IT ON HIS WEBSITE:
When I began work ten years ago on a book about white sharks, I had no idea that this project would yield my most well-known image to date. For more than ten months I worked together with Michael Scholl and scientists at the White Shark Trust to create novel images of white sharks in South Africa that would illustrate current scientific research.
The team observed large numbers of white sharks venturing into extremely shallow water during the summer months. In order to figure out why, the researchers tracked and observed the sharks’ movements, but were regularly thwarted for two reasons. First, the inshore realm was treacherous, humped by rocky reefs and sandbanks, which heaved the research boat precariously during an onslaught of large swells. Secondly, the boat engine's electrical field seemed to affect the sharks' behavior.
I suggested using a kayak as less obtrusive photographic platform to track white sharks. I was met withcautious enthusiasm, so I was voted to be the one to test the waters. Even though we repeatedly tested the sharks’ reactions to an empty kayak, the first few attempts at a manned kayak were nerve-wracking.
As I sat in the “yum-yum” yellow sea kayak, a 15-foot (4.5m) great white shark ambled towards me. However, white sharks are much more cautious and inquisitive than aggressive and unpredictable. And this proved true with our experiment; at no time did the sharks show any aggression toward us or our little yellow craft.
The story of this particular photograph began on a perfectly calm and glassy sea. I tied myself to the tower of the White Shark Trust research boat and leaned into the void, precariously hanging over the ocean while waiting patiently. The first shark came across our sea kayak, dove to the seabed, and inspected it from below. I trained my camera on the nebulous shadow as it slowly transformed into the sleek silhouette of a large great white. When the shark’s dorsal fin emerged, I thought I had the shot but hesitated a fraction of a second. In that moment, the research assistant in the kayak, Trey Snow, turned to look behind him, and I took the shot. Throughout the day I shot many more similar images, but all lacked the connection of first image.
I knew the image was iconic, but I was not prepared for the public response. When the photograph was first published, it attracted more than 100,000 visitors to my website in 24 hours. Many thought the photo was a digital fake, and to date there are still hundreds of websites that debate its authenticity. Not only is the image real, it was one of the last images I took using slide film before transitioning to digital.
All magazines and prints were taken from a high-resolution scan of the slide with no post-production work. Over the years the image continued to sell and just when I thought it had run its course, the image resurfaced on April 1, 2006.
The French magazine, Le Magazine des Voyages de Peche (The Magazine of Fishing Voyages) published an April Fool’s Day article that told the story of professional fishermen Arnold Pointer from south Australia who accidentally caught a large female white shark in one of his fishing nets. Instead of killing her, he set her free and named her Cindy. From that day forward, the shark followed Arnold every time he set out to sea. In the article, he states, “It’s been two years and she doesn’t leave me alone. She follows me everywhere I go, and her presence scares all the fishes.” Two years later this hoax was immortalized in a YouTube slideshow, which used my photograph, purportedly showing Cindy the white shark following Arnold in his yellow kayak.
The video received nearly 1.6 million hits and introduced the white shark kayak to a new audience, albeit in an inaccurate if humorous context.
On August 21, 2011, Hurricane Irene battered the Caribbean island of Puerto Rico and flooded many streets. I could never have imagined that my photograph would make an appearance in this context, except this time it was only the shark, minus the kayak. On August 24 the shark appeared on a social news website in the form of a photograph taken from the open window of a car driving along a flooded street. Next to the car was “my” white shark swimming through the flooded streets of Puerto Rico.
The image was then picked up and used in a TV bulletin on Channel 7 News Miami. A closer examination of the shark revealed that it was identical to the shark following the kayak in my photograph. It appears that a crafty Photoshop artist superimposed the shark into a scene of a flooded street. The composite resurfaced again in June of 2012, when a shark tank supposedly burst in a popular mall in Kuwait. The photo depicted two sharks (one of which was mine) swimming at the bottom of a submerged escalator.
The most recent incarnation appeared in the wake of Hurricane Sandy, which devastated the eastern coast of the U.S. This time, the shark made the same appearance outside a car window in the flooded streets of New Jersey. I always look forward to receiving e-mails from friends and family who have spotted the same white shark in a different context. While I will probably never become a legend in my own right, at least my white shark is well on her way.