360˚VR – Encounter with Great White Shark in Stellwagen Bank National Marine Sanctuary

Photos and story by Senior Fellow Keith Ellenbogen.

Keith Ellenbogen was awarded a Hollings Ocean Awareness Award from the National Marine Sanctuary Foundation to capture dramatic and beautiful images that showcase the surprising diversity of marine wildlife within Stellwagen Bank National Marine Sanctuary, just 25 nautical miles off the coast of Boston, between Cape Ann and Cape Cod. In August, Keith set sail from Scituate, Massachusetts to journey to the southeast corner of Stellwagen Bank National Marine Sanctuary onboard the Auk, a 50 ft research vessel with a small rigid hull inflatable boat (RHIB) operated by NOAA and Stellwagen Bank Sanctuary in search of extraordinary oceanic marine animals to photograph, such as sea turtles, mola mola or ocean sunfish, sharks, seabirds and more.

On August 17th, onboard a RHIB with a team from NOAA/Stellwagen Bank Sanctuary a dorsal fin was observed breaking the surface moving extremely slowly. Unsure if this was a mola mola, blueshark, white shark, or basking shark, a few minutes was spent watching its behavior from the surface. It can be difficult to identify fish from the surface on small boats that are low to the water. Based on the fin shape and the animal’s movements, mola mola and then blue and white sharks were quickly ruled out. When the animal made a large circle – a behavior typically associated with basking sharks – it was agreed it was a large basking shark. I must admit I have never seen a basking shark, and this is one of those iconic animals I was excited to photograph. The ocean conditions were perfect – no wind with calm seas that were flat like glass.

Our plan was to position the RHIB up current from the basking shark and then I would swim towards it. Once the RHIB was in position, I slid into the water in my wetsuit, snorkel and 360˚VR camera mounted on a 3-foot handle. Mentally I was breathing shallow, as I was prepared to freedive to capture images of the basking shark with its mouth open, feeding on plankton. Once in the water with a sense of excitement and my 360˚VR multi-camera system, I slowly started kicking towards the basking shark. I alternated between looking above the water to track the shark’s fin on the surface while waiting for a glimpse of the animal to reveal itself through the water. The water visibility in New England is about 20ft on a good day – like it was that day. The coastal waters off Massachusetts are turbid with limited visibility and that makes photographing large animals a technical challenge.

On the surface, I was breathing shallow and getting ready to dive. After about 10 seconds of uninterrupted emerald green sea with dancing waves of sunlight and a feeling of excitement, I arrived within 25ft of the shark and got my first glimpse of the outline of the animal. I immediately realized this was not a basking shark but rather an enormous Great White Shark swimming straight towards me, and I was swimming straight towards it! We later estimated the size at 16ft long, 6ft wide and about 2,000 lbs – about the same size as the NOAA RHIB. I found myself swimming in close proximity to a very big and dangerous fish!

Photo by Keith Ellenbogen

I immediately stopped swimming forward. At that moment, time moved slowly. I was not sure what to expect from the shark and just put myself into a trance and said to myself, “enjoy the moment.” During this 10-second encounter, I kept my heartbeat slow and steady, my body language predictable and firm and the camera stable to get the shot. My trajectory was such that I was headed straight towards the mouth of the shark and I could not change direction. This was perfect placement for a basking shark but not ideal for a great white shark. As we approached each other, I could hardly believe how big this shark was. I was approaching so close that I pulled the pole of the 360VR camera closer to myself to avoid bumping into the animal. In the video you can see the micro movements I was making with my hand to slow down my speed and avert bumping into the shark.

As I approached its giant face and teeth, what I remember most was its strong and direct eye contact. Fortunately, the shark did not change its behavior or trajectory. I think it was in a catatonic sleep-like state. I wonder if it’s ever been approached by another living animal before and what was it thinking? I’m fortunate, in that I have lots of experience filming other sharks such as blue, makos, and bull sharks in the wild and am comfortable in extreme situations. Panic is never a solution. I knew I was committed and that all I could do was enjoy this experience and get the shot.

From the surface, the team realized that I was swimming with a Great White Shark probably a few seconds before I did. They all said I was so close to the shark that its fin and my snorkel were almost touching. Everyone was so nervous but there was nothing they could do other than watch the entire event unfold. From the boat people expressed a sense of fear of a shark that was the size of the RHIB. Fortunately, they did not accelerate the engine or do anything that might have startled the shark. I was lucky that we drifted by each other, and once past the shark, I immediately raised my hands and called the RHIB over. I threw my camera onboard and pulled myself onboard in record time.

Photo by Keith Ellenbogen

Wildlife photography, especially underwater, requires hours of patience, even tedium, followed by seconds of excitement when the critical elements of movement, behavior, light, and composition all come together into a single frame that creates an emotional connection to the animal and its habitat. I am embracing 360˚VR camera technology to give viewers an opportunity to become immersed within a visual experience that virtually echoes my experience holding the camera underwater. It was such a beautiful, majestic animal; I’m glad I had this once-in-a-lifetime encounter. As a conservation photographer I hope this video demonstrates that Great White Sharks are not mindless man eaters but rather large apex predators that provide insight into a healthy ocean ecosystem.

When I returned to land, I immediately spoke with Dr. Greg Skomal, the leading Great White Shark researcher with the Massachusetts Division of Marine Fisheries. Greg said this female shark was first identified by him in July 27, 2012 and named Large Marge. She was tagged with a short-term transponder and tracked with an autonomous underwater vehicle. She was one of the first white sharks ever tracked with this technology and was featured in a Discovery film called “Return of Jaws”. During that summer, she was also photographed off Nauset Beach following a kayaker – this photo was featured on the cover of the Cape Cod Times. Greg estimated her size back then at roughly 16 feet. In 2014, a collaborative research vessel saw her again off the coast of Provincetown, Cape Cod, but she was not tagged. Greg added that this is the first footage captured of Large Marge since 2014.

About Keith:
Keith is a renowned underwater conservation photographer. He is an Assistant Professor of Photography at SUNY/The Fashion Institute of Technology, a Visiting Artist at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology Sea Grant Program, a Senior Fellow at The International League of Conservation Photographers (iLCP) and 2018 TED Resident. Keith was a U.S. Fulbright Fellow and holds an MFA from Parsons School for Design.