A Freediver Who's Nuts About Sharks

My love affair with sharks began many many years ago. Sharks fired my imagination when I was six years old. That was back in 1947 in Buenos Aires. To this day, I vividly remember how mesmerized I was when I discovered a book about intrepid helmet divers and undersea monsters in my fathers library ("Danger is my business" by John D. Craig). I still have, and cherish, that well-worn book, and I sometimes look nostalgically at that fateful picture of a landed mako shark with its huge black eyes and the protruding teeth.

Eight years later, in 1955, after my parents decided to move from South America to Germany (their home country, which they left before WWII ) I was privileged to dive the enchanted shores of the French Riviera, close to the hitherto unknown little fishing village called Saint Tropez. It was there I got hooked forever on diving, which to me has always been freediving. Coincidentally, that same year my parents gave me a Kodak "Baby Brownie", a cheap, ridiculously primitive plastic camera which turned me into the enthusiastic amateur photographer I have been ever since.

I have never dived with tanks, and I never will. Only a couple of years ago, I still thought that as a confirmed freediver, I belonged to an almost prehistoric, soon-to- be-extinct-species. Of course, I was aware of all of those incredibly competitive freedivers, male and female, who break one depth record after another, constantly redefining their limits, and sadly, sometimes going beyond them.

What really impresses me is to see that freediving is experiencing a sweeping comeback everywhere with more and more cool young folks rediscovering how it all started: just mask, fins and snorkel.

When I was a novice, I did everything a freediver should not do: I was a chain smoker, I dove without a buddy (I still prefer to dive alone — I know I shouldn’t…), did not train, and I thought I had mastered the most effective breath-holding technique: I used to hyperventilate to the point of becoming dizzy before going down… Hypothermia??? I did not know even the term in those days. Blue lips and shivering limbs after an extensive stay in cold water seemed to me the most natural thing associated with skin diving. It must have been outright luck that I survived those reckless diving habits. Fortunately, I have since learned a thing or two about advanced apnea skills.

Now, at age 62, I am a better diver than I was at the peak of my youth. Needless to say, I quit smoking (not too long ago, though), and I exercise every day. I guess I am in relatively good shape taking into account that I have had a few health problems quite recently, including a life threatening angina pectoris and a cancer. With some training, I can manage to hold my breath for four minutes (static — very static apnea).

Like everybody else during the fifties, I began my diving career as an avid underwater hunter. I don’t think I should feel bad about it. Take Hans Hass, indisputably the most revered idol of a whole generation of divers. Jacques-Yves Cousteau, Stan Waterman — all passionately underwater hunters.

I still spearfish, but not like in those glorious bygone days when my instinct drove me to go mercilessly after everything that moved in the water. Today I use a simple pole spear or a Hawaiian sling to get only what I need for dinner, and that is not much considering that my wife does not eat fish. I also use the pole spear to fend off sharks when they get a bit too close to me.

I dove many places in the Mediterranean, the Caribbean, the Red Sea, and lately the Galapagos, but it was in the Bahamas where I had my first real life shark encounters: Caribbean Reef Sharks, Silky Sharks, Lemon Sharks and even a Great Hammerhead, the only one I ever saw. Knowing quite a few gorgeous sites in different parts of the world, I can confirm that diving is really "Better in the Bahamas" as the Bahamian Ministry of Tourism slogan went in the good old times, which were the unforgettable Seventies.

I lived in the Bahamas between 1974 and 1980. From a diving point of view, those years were the best of my life. Just imagine: I could dive every weekend in almost virginal, fish-rich spots just 30 minutes away from funky Nassau! It was in one of those places where I was surprised by the Great Hammerhead while chasing a nicely sized hogfish. The 8-9 foot shark was as excited as I was scared. At that time, I had hardly any experience with sharks. But then, I was lucky to learn my first field-lesson about shark behavior: the friendly shark was interested in the speared fish, not in me…

I find nothing more thrilling, yet totally relaxing than freediving with sharks. It is commonly said that sharks are unpredictable. This is not so. We just don’t understand them yet. The more we learn about these creatures, the more we will appreciate — even love them. Sharks are magnificent predators: they are not "JAWS" – ask Peter Benchley what he thinks of sharks today.

Sharks have been around for hundreds of millions of years. They inhabited the oceans long before dinosaurs roamed the earth and amazingly, they are still here. However, they are not safe anymore. Ruthless poachers and commercial fisherman are alarmingly decimating the shark populations all over the world, even in marine parks such as the Galapagos Islands, one of the most exciting diving places on the Blue Planet. Much to my chagrin, as a resident of Ecuador, I have to state that in spite of generous international aid programs, the local authorities seem to be incapable of effectively controlling illegal shark fishing in this unique sanctuary which, by a freak of historical circumstances, became part of Ecuador in the nineteenth century.

The problem is truly global. Unfortunately, misconceptions about sharks prevail despite a vast array of informative books and excellent TV documentaries such as "Shark Week" on the Discovery Channel. The public has to be made aware that when it comes to sharks, our real concern should be for shark survival — not how to protect bathers and surfers from shark attacks.

Over the years, I have grown to feel quite confident in the presence of sharks, and if I was ever in real trouble — it happened only a few times — it was entirely my own fault. Indeed, I occasionally tend to simply overlook the fact that these formidable, awe-inspiring marine creatures command respect at all times. We know that some sharks are potentially hazardous to our health: I guess it is a good thing they do not seem to know how utterly helpless and vulnerable we can be in their realm…

If you want to photograph sharks, you need chum or bleeding fish to attract them, otherwise these beautiful beasts won’t get near you. A fairly safe way to see sharks up close is joining a pack of scuba tourists on guided feeding tours. But as I said, that is not my bag: No crowds, no bubbles. Also, I have never seen a nicely composed shark photograph taken during a feeding frenzy in a depth of 30 or 40 feet. Even David Doubilet would agree with me that it is virtually impossible to concentrate on so many sharks and at the same time focus on composing the picture without awkwardly kneeling divers in full gear in the background.

Some people think I am crazy: they are probably right. I dive mostly alone and then I chum the water to get the sharks a little excited — enough to approach me curiously, sometimes even boldly. It is like being on the edge, and that is when my good old Nikonos V starts clicking. No flash, just a standard 28mm lens and preferably black and white film. I have seen outstanding underwater color photographs, however, to me nothing can be more captivating and dramatic than a grainy black and white picture. That is probably because the first groundbreaking underwater photographs I saw fifty-one years ago, in a fabulous book by Hans Hass, were all taken in black and white, and somehow these first impressions must have defined my aesthetic perception of the underwater world.

If I were to dedicate my shark photographs, it would be to my son Felix, himself a passionate child of the sea and truly a gentle man in his attitude toward God’s creatures, be they people or animals. It was Felix who encouraged me to exhibit my work though that new revolutionizing medium which I still have difficulties dealing with, let alone understanding: The Internet.

**Media Editors Note – I became aware of Wolfgang’s work though my research looking for unique image creators. Hs is an exception to the rule when it comes to his technique and his sense of capturing the decisive moment while freediving his uncanny. Once you have read his biography, have a look at his work in the showcase gallery section of DeeperBlue – you will be amazed at the quality and depth of his work – Cliff Etzel**