‘I’ve spent 3,500 days at sea but have never captured an image quite so powerful and evocative’ … Air Jaws (2001) by Chris Fallows. Photograph: Chris Fallows
‘Adolescent great whites lurk in the depths waiting for seals. Then they launch themselves at the surface – and their sheer power takes them clear of the water’
The Guardian-Interview by Edward Siddons
There is no more iconic species on the planet than the great white shark. Everybody knows what they are, even in the most landlocked countries on Earth, and people are fascinated by them. The great white sharks at Seal Island, a few miles across the water from False Bay near Cape Town, use a surface hunting technique called breaching. They lurk in the depths waiting for seals porpoising along the waves, then launch themselves with incredible speed towards the surface. Their sheer power takes them clear of the water and results in these dramatic breaches that have become famous on documentary channels all across the world.
Sharks tend to hunt differently depending on their environment. In the Farallon Islands near San Francisco, they’ll bite off the flippers of seals and let them bleed out. But at Seal Island, certain environmental factors encourage this sort of aerial hunting. First, it’s the ideal topography: the shallows turn to depths quickly, meaning the sharks patrolling the deeper waters can surprise their prey. Stealth is key.
Second, the sharks are at just the right age. Very young sharks don’t tend to feed on mammalian prey, and large older sharks tend to hunt larger, slower-moving animals. Near Seal Island there are a load of these adolescent sharks that are strong and agile enough to clear the water. And finally, it’s about the seals. They’re just small enough to be the perfect prey for the adolescent great whites. Those factors combine at Seal Island like nowhere else on Earth, resulting in this incredible aerial display.
I put my camera film in for developing on a Friday. When I went back on the Monday, everybody was clapping
When I took this shot, I thought I had something special, but you never know until it’s developed. I was shooting on film, so I couldn’t just scroll back and check. But when I took the roll into the lab on a Friday night, I told them to take extra care because I thought I might have something. It was a long wait over the weekend.
When I went into the lab on the following Monday morning, everybody was clapping. I looked at the first frame and it was soft – I was certain I’d ballsed it up. Then this was the second frame. It was pin-sharp. The rush was just incredible.
As a wildlife photographer, you spend hours and hours concentrating, looking through a minute viewfinder, dealing with concentration headaches – it’s a full-on process. If you sneeze or look away, you might lose your chance. To this day, despite having spent more than 3,500 days at sea, I’ve never come close to capturing an image quite so powerful and evocative as this one. Last year, I took a photo of a shark jumping much higher, but it didn’t have the same dynamism. I don’t think I’ll ever match this shot.
Taken in 2001, this image was a turning point in my career. It has probably been seen in more places than any other marine wildlife image: it has been on around 500 covers and front pages, and billboards across the world. Last year, it won the StART Global Eye award, 20 years after I took it.
There’s something intimidating about that success. Documentary crews from all around the world started banging on our door, wanting to come and see this amazing shark behaviour. The BBC, National Geographic, the Discovery Channel – they came all the way to the southern tip of Africa.
Animals have given me everything. They’re the reason I get up in the morning, the reason I go to sleep looking forward to the next day. Ultimately, even if it’s for selfish reasons, you want to make sure that these animals are there tomorrow, because spending time with them is so pleasurable. This photograph is a call to action – to protect the animals and ecosystems that make our planet what it is.
Chris Fallows’ CV
Born: Johannesburg, South Africa, 1972.
Trained: Self-taught, but with many inspirational people who gave me advice, including my dad, Tony Heald, Doug Perrine, and Jim Watt.
Influences: David Yarrow, Nick Brandt, Federico Veronesi, Bob Talbot.
High point: “Discovering the famous flying great whites of South Africa in 1996 and, photographically, taking this image in 2001 and winning the prestigious StART Global Eye award for it in 2020.”
Low point: “Seeing South Africa’s sharks and wildlife disappearing, and our politicians letting it happen.”
Top tip: “Get to know and respect your subjects, and remember it is a privilege to share their company.”
Chris Fallows’ exhibition The 11th Hour is at StART art fair, 13-17 October at Saatchi Gallery, London