05 Oct Swimming with the Sharks – and Photographing Them Too
This Cape Cod veterinarian dives around the world photographing and tagging some of the world’s most mysterious and endangered ocean creatures. You can view many of his photographs at the Cape Cod Museum of Natural History through October. Learn more.
By the Cape Cod Museum of Natural History
When Dr. Tom Burns talks about sharks, the word that continuously emerges is “passion.”
It’s a passion that began, he remembers, when he was in first grade and received a book about “those amazing creatures.” It’s a passion that never relented, but instead evolved from childhood fascination to scientific curiosity. Enthusiasm was joined by insight.
Dr. Burns always was “into animals,” and today he is director of Veterinary Associates of Cape Cod, and past board member of the Cape Animal Referral & Emergency Center and past president of the Cape Cod Veterinary Medical Association.
He also is a renowned underwater photographer of both sharks and whales, traveling around the world in pursuit of these creatures, sometimes taking his wife, Whitney, and his three children, all of whom are divers too. Recently, they swam with Galapagos sharks off Hawaii, as well as basking sharks right here in Cape waters.
“When I do take my kids, we often swim with sharks. It’s an education they can’t get in the walls of a classroom.”
Dr. Burns’ photographs, particularly of sharks, have been published in Asian Geographic, Asian Diver, and Shark Diver Magazine. An array of them now are on exhibit at the Cape Cod Museum of Natural History in its Naturescape Gallery.
They place you intimately before the rarest of sharks, their shapes and behavior mesmerizing.
“I’m very fortunate. I have been diving and photographing these creatures now for 25 years,” he said, working often with scientists and other experts to help better understand shark behavior. “The scientific cache of these creatures still is so minimal.”
An avid diver from an early age, Dr. Burns’ photography grew from a trip he took to Australia. “At first, all I wanted to do was show it to my family. Otherwise, they wouldn’t believe what I was looking at, these spectacular creatures.”
His first dive searching for sharks was in the early 1990s, he recalls. “It was in open water with no protection between us and them. And here I was with a shark coming right at me. I remember thinking to myself, ‘This might not be good.’ But, he passed right by me as indifferent as he could be.”
That encounter flew in the face of everything Dr. Burns had read and learned. “I realized that sharks are not mindless eating machines. They are very calculating, very intelligent super predators.”
That doesn’t make Dr. Burns care-free. To the contrary, he brings utmost respect to these creatures. Safety always is paramount.
At the same time, he explains that when he confronts sharks, “most of the time, they don’t know what to make of us, and when they do figure out we are not food, they resort to being indifferent.”
Dr. Burns doesn’t have to travel to Hawaii or Fiji to fulfill his passion. Sometimes, he will dive right off the Cape and Islands including last year when he participated in the first deployment of a satellite tag on a whale shark in the north Atlantic.
It was part of a project called TOTEM, which is an acronym for Tagging of Oceanic Teleost and Elasmobranch totem-logo-blueMegafauna. It brings together Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution , the Massachusetts Department of Fisheries’ Dr. Greg Skomal, the University of the Azores Burns and his diving colleague, Eric Savetsky along with Captain Willy Hatch and pilot Wayne Davis.
Launched in 2012, it has included tagging expeditions to the western North Atlantic, the Azores, the Red Sea and the central tropical Pacific. Basking sharks, blue sharks, makos, swordfish and mobulid rays all have been tagged using a combination of Smart Position and Temperature (SPOT) and Pop-up Satellite Archival Transmitting (PSAT) technologies.
Beyond gaining unique views of the lives of the largest fishes in the ocean, the data collected is being shared with government, inter-governmental and non-governmental organizations tasked with the conservation and sustainable management of these populations in the Atlantic.
“Encountering the whale shark was an iconic moment,” said Dr. Burns. “It’s the largest shark in the entire ocean, often reaching more than 40 feet in length. Yet, they are described often as gentle giants, feeding on plankton, the tiniest ocean organism.”
Dr. Burns explains that the shark whale belongs to the group called Chondryichtyes, which includes sharks, rays, and skates. These fish have skeletons made entirely of cartilage in comparison to other fish that have skeletons made of bone.
Little else is known about the life history of this elusive giant, which makes their discovery close to Cape Cod so compelling to Dr Burns.
A subsequent encounter with another whale shark that was 30 feet long and estimated to weigh 25,000 pounds was so intimate that Dr. Burns and his colleagues named it “Canyon.” The name derives from where it was spotted, the Northeast Canyons and Seamounts Marine National Monument.
President Obama had designated its nearly 5,000 square miles as the first marine national monument in the Atlantic Ocean to protect its ecological sources and marine species, including deep-sea corals; sperm, fin, and sei whales; Kemp’s Ridley sea turtles; and, deep-sea fish.
More recently, however, that designation is under review by the Trump administration. At the edge of George’s Banks, a fertile fishing area, some of it could be opened up for commercial purposes – a possibility that has alarmed and mobilized environmentalists, including Burns.
“This gets my ire and passion all fired up,” he said. “It’s one reason we wanted to attach a real name and face to this creature. My worry is that most people don’t know what is going on in the ocean to precious species. By tagging and naming Canyon, we give him a real identity and introduce people to that part of the ocean,” he explained.
In fact, thousands of people track Canyon in real time online. Click here. http://www.ocearch.org/tracker/.
Balancing his veterinary practice with his photography is a constant challenge, one that often entails intricate scheduling. When it comes to tagging whale sharks, Dr. Burns will leave Nantucket on a 36-foot boat for 15- hour overnight stints, exploring canyons 150 miles southeast with the help of Davis’ spotter plane.
He’ll dive with his colleague Eric Savetsky during the day, stay overnight on the water, and then leave the following day.
More complicated are trips as far as Sri Lanka, where he dove last March for two days, while traveling there over nearly five days. It was worth it. He swam with a pod of about 50 sperm whales.
These creatures have the largest brain of any creature known to have lived on Earth, according to National Geographic.
“Being very intelligent, they choose to let you into their world. You can’t just swim up to them and take their photo,” said Dr. Burns. “They must come to you and check you out. If not, you won’t see them underwater.”
Their heads also hold large quantities of a substance called spermaceti.
Whalers once believed that the oily fluid was sperm, but scientists still do not understand the function of spermaceti. One common theory is that the fluid—which hardens to wax when cold—helps the whale alter its buoyancy so it can dive deep and rise again. They are known to dive as deep as 3,280 feet in search of squid to eat. As a result, these giant mammals must hold their breath for up to 90 minutes on such dives.
Becoming a world-class underwater photographer has been a never-ending venture that has involved constant trial and error. “To state the obvious, shooting underwater is much different and often more difficult than on land,” he said.
His photography, including those on exhibit at the Cape Cod Museum of Natural History in Brewster, requires Dr. Burns to be extraordinarily close to the creatures, – sometimes literally face to face. At the same time, encounters often occur in a split second.
His photography is driven by a hunger to educate.
“Sharks have been misunderstood as mindless eating machines. They are just the opposite,” he explained. “My goal is to try to capture them in their element, to provide new insights.”
For example, all the recent publicity about great whites off the Cape Cod shore tends to overly dramatize their presence, he said. “These animals are cruising up and down our shoreline all the time, rarely interacting with humans. They are very shy, discriminating, careful and cautious.”
One of Dr. Burns’ favorite photographs is that of a white tip shark swimming with pilot fish.
Great whites may get the most publicity, but he explains that the white tip was described by the renowned oceanographer Jacques Cousteau as “the most dangerous of all sharks.”
“I first tried to photograph one in the early 90’s, but could not succeed. A hundred years ago, they were prolific, maybe the number one predator on the planet. But, their numbers have dramatically diminished, and today it is extremely rare to find one.
When Dr. Burns did encounter a white tip, there was a complication. A large plastic bottle tied was tied to him. “He probably was stealing fish off tuna gear and someone tied the leader to the bottle so he could not drag it deep below.”
What to do?
“It could not dive or do normal things like a shark can do, so a friend and I decided to corral him to cut the bottle free,” said. Dr. Burns.
The reward included the photo now hanging at the museum.
It gets its name from the unusual shape of its head, an amazing piece of anatomy built to maximize the fish’s ability to find its favorite meal: stingrays, according to National Geographic.
It traps stingrays by pinning them to the seafloor. The shark’s eye placement, on each end of its very wide head, allows it to scan more area more quickly than other sharks can. It also has special sensors across its head that help it scan for food. Living creatures’ bodies give off electrical signals, which are picked up by sensors on the prowling hammerhead.
Burns shot it at night, and it culminated a 15-year quest to encounter this creature. He joked that he spent his honeymoon off the Cayman Islands futilely looking for one.
He and a friend were sitting on the ocean floor about 30 feet down in darkness, patiently hoping that a hammerhead would be attracted to bait. The only light came from the moon above reflecting through the water.
As they detected what they hoped was the motion of a hammerhead, they turned on strobes. The creature was right in front of them – with the bait behind him.
The strobe not only blinded the hammerhead, but also Burns. That’s when he felt the thud. It had rushed right over him.
“The shark probably was as scared as I was.”
At the same time, Dr.Burns was so excited with his discovery that “I wanted to hug it.”
Fear to exhaltation
For Dr. Burns to successfully photograph sharks and whales, he must be very close to them, often no more than several feet.
“I’m human. There are definitely times when you experience fear,” he said. “A situation can turn to more than you expect, but these are very rare. The reality is that the experience is normally very calm and organized. Sharks are not interested in humans for food.”
He recalls one time swimming in the Bahamas when he was surrounded by tiger sharks, named for the dark, vertical stripes found mainly on juveniles. (As these sharks mature, the lines begin to fade and almost disappear).
These large, blunt-nosed predators have a duly earned reputation as man-eaters, according to National Geographic. They are second only to great whites in attacking people.
“I counted about a dozen of them, which were nine or 10 too many,” he joked. “But I remember thinking that the situation was my fault, I put myself in that position. If I get bit, the shark will be considered the culprit, and that would not be fair.”
Far more frequently than fear is euphoria, said Dr. Burns. “It so peaceful underwater. The encounters are surreal. They so often are once-in-blue moon moments.”
They also represent epiphanies. Burns finds himself often at the cusp of new knowledge that will influence how scientists and researchers view these animals.
One such revelation was watching great white predation in shallow waters off Cape Cod’s coast.
“I had learned that great whites needed to be in deep waters – at least 80 to 100 feet- to successfully predate by remaining stealthy. But, I managed to take a photo of one great white coming out of the water to laterally snap prey.”
That shot attracted the attention of Brian Skerry, a National Geographic photographer, who connected with Dr. Burns for what would become a documentary in 2016.
This is part of an account of Skerry’s experience published by National Geographic:
“With more and more great whites being spotted off the beaches of Cape Cod, Skerry set out to document the massive predators, hoping to learn about their behaviors and shed some light on the oft-misunderstood carnivores. But a lot more than just a beautiful photo was riding on this assignment.
“Sharks suffer from this terrible one-dimensional view that many people have of them as mindless killers. Because of that, it’s been, I believe, easy to almost eradicate sharks,” Skerry says. “Every year more than 100 million sharks are being killed on planet Earth. When you think about the value that predators play to the health of any ecosystem, you realize that we can’t kill 100 million sharks and expect the oceans to be healthy.”
“I wanted to put a face on this shadowy creature that has been portrayed as a monster and show what they look like,” he adds. “I hope that the viewer takes away that these are complex animals, that we need a more informed view of them, a more progressive view of these animals.”
A new population of great whites began emerging in Cape Cod in 2009, likely capitalizing on the dense population of tasty gray seals. “This would be analogous to a new pride of lions emerging in Africa. We just don’t see new populations of predators occurring really anywhere that I’m aware of in the natural world,” Skerry says.
“What I’ve ultimately done was work with researchers who designed seal decoys as a way of attracting the shark to look at the predation strategy, because it also seems that the white sharks here are hunting in a different way than they do in other places in the world. I had the idea of installing cameras inside the seal decoys, which are made out of just neoprene and foam so it wouldn’t hurt the sharks.”
The camera-rigged seal decoys have not only allowed Skerry to put a face to these persecuted animals, but have also provided the scientists with critical data about the sharks’ behaviors and hunting habits, which can be used to keep both the sharks and beach-goers safe.
Still, the researchers and Skerry had a friendly rivalry going due to slightly conflicting interests. Skerry explains: “I wanted a shark that was curious, but not so curious that he destroyed the seal decoy and my camera. Tom Burns would be cheering for a full-on breach where the shark came out of the water with the decoy in its mouth.
In the end, both Burns and Skerry could celebrate, having gotten photos and data that tell the stories of great whites in Cape Cod and help inform how we can best protect them and nearby humans.”
“Sharks are better having in our world. Without them, the ocean would be an unhealthy place. The more that we can learn about them through science and through photography, the better off we will all be.”