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Swimming Among Sharks

A Photo Essay by Marie-Elizabeth Mali


Shark! For many, the word conjures up spine-tingling theme music, watery thrashing, and rows of triangular teeth among blood-red gums. Though the sharks in this photo essay are Caribbean reef sharks—and not great whites or bull sharks—reaction to these photos from many people has been extreme: fear, repulsion, concern for my life as the underwater photographer.

Shark Week on the Discovery Channel, as compelling as it is, doesn’t help much either, with its footage of great whites leaping out of the water to maul the bait, a rubber baby seal, and the show’s hosts saying things like, “I’m going to leap now into shark-infested waters. Hope I make it out alive!”

I remember the first time I saw reef sharks underwater. I was in the Galapagos and my heart raced. I hung back, watchful. But they don’t seem that interested in us, certainly not as food. Shark attacks on humans are more rare than lightning striking humans, yet we still step outside during thunderstorms. Sometimes a reef shark will attack if it feels cornered or if visibility is bad, but we were diving in clear conditions and never crowded them, so there was never any sense of danger.

In the Turks and Caicos, where these photos were taken, I again felt calm around the sharks, entranced by the undulations their bodies made as they circled our group. The slow motion of their bodies was graceful, hypnotic. The fact that one was pregnant, another had a hook in the corner of his mouth, and several had small fish accompanying them as they swam, made them recognizable and even personable. We made a total of six dives with the sharks at various sites and I was intrigued to note from dive to dive which returned to interact with us.

Swimming Among Sharks
Hover over image for small preview; click image to view full-size photo by Marie-Elizabeth Mali. Begin by clicking first image to move through full slideshow.
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For the Chinese, the fin of the shark is a delicacy and has medicinal qualities said to be aphrodisiacal and cancer-curing. Over 100 million sharks are killed every year, a portion of which feeds the demand for shark fin soup. Shark fin has become one of the most expensive delicacies in the world, and with the rise of the middle class in China, demand for fins has skyrocketed. Typically, the fins are sliced off and then the rest of the shark is dumped back into the water, a wasteful practice called “finning.” The shark either drowns or dies from starvation because it cannot swim without its fins.

I wonder if people don’t stand up in protest against finning and the sheer number of sharks killed per year are because of the genetic-level dread we feel toward these awesome fish; dread fed by occasional altercations like the Jersey Shore attacks of 1916 and mythic tales like Jaws.

After the Deepwater Horizon oil spill in the Gulf, deepwater sharks such as tiger and whale sharks turned up near coastlines in Florida, disoriented and lethargic. Sharks have an acute sense of smell, so biologists hope that sharks have been able to sniff out cleaner waters. It will take years to track the effects of the oil spill on sharks and all marine life—though in the past, events like the Exxon Valdez disaster drastically reduced local shark pod ability to reproduce, and shark numbers were greatly diminished.

I hope that these photos inspire curiosity about sharks and awaken respect and care for one of the magnificent, most ancient creatures of an ever-evolving sea.

Take action to help save sharks at www.SavingSharks.com.


Marie-Elizabeth Mali is the author of one book of poetry, Steady, My Gaze (Tebot Bach, 2011). During the long surface intervals between dive trips, she serves as co-curator for louderARTS: the Reading Series and Page Meets Stage, both in New York City. For more information, please visit www.memali.com.
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The Brutal Business of Shark Finning, Sea Shepherd Conservation Society

Deepwater Horizon Oil Spill

The Discovery Channel's Shark Week

Exxon Valdez Oil Spill


Shark Research Institute



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