Legs placed confidently apart and arm thrust forward, the deep sea diver holds his bounty aloft, like a trophy.
Except that this is no ordinary catch.
It is a 13ft long Great White Shark, which at any moment could awaken and become a frenzied mass of razor-sharp teeth and muscle.
Sharkman, real name Mike Rutzen, has earned worldwide fame for swimming with the predators without the safety of a diving cage. The former fisherman is on a crusade to show that the huge fish are not bloodthirsty killers but are intelligent and sensitive creatures.
He also wants to highlight their status as an endangered species – their jaws can fetch tens of thousands of pounds on the black market.
To successfully swim with sharks, Mike has learned to mimic their body language, changing his posture in response to their actions.
He is seen neither as prey nor predator and the sharks happily glide past him, occasionally letting him ride with them by hanging on to their dorsal fins.
It has not always been plain sailing, though – his body bears more than 30 scars from close encounters. But now he has decided to take on the ultimate challenge – as depicted in this picture – the remarkable phenomenon of “tonic immobility”.
This is a natural state of paralysis, which animals sometimes enter when faced with an imminent threat. However, it can be induced in sharks by turning them on their heads and massaging their snouts, close to the eyes.
The effects last for around 15 minutes and has proved a useful tool for scientists wanting to study shark behaviour. Being able to get so close to the Great White, Mike discovered that they do not have beady black eyes, as previously thought, but they are actually a startling blue.
Freediving with these animals is no game. Mike’s initial encounters with them were tentative, and progress was slow. Only when he realised that when he was freediving he was not an observer but a part of the sharks’ hierarchy did the real learning begin.
On one of his first dives, Mike pushed an over-curious shark away using the butt of his speargun. The shark returned to give an almighty gape just centimetres from Mike’s face. There is nothing like pissing off a great white to kick-start the learning process.
And of course, there have been times when Mike has made a wrong move or come across an over-dominant, pushy shark. A large white shark even pushed him all the way to the bottom until he was flat on his back. But never, thankfully, has there been a negative encounter that Mike could not escape.
Mike saw that great white sharks communicate using body language. They convey their mood and threats to others using subtle postures and movements.
These are not like the well-documented body and swimming postures displayed by reef sharks under threat. This is a delicate language that is only beginning to be translated.
White sharks display to one another in communal situations, such as around a food source. Body language and swimming behaviour are used to organise a hierarchy among them, and convey intentions and responses.
Mike has tapped into this language, and has been able to speak it in return. By controlling his movements, he has been able to use his body in the same way as a white shark does, and so interact with them.
This is no small feat. It means being able to convince one or more white sharks that you, too, are an ocean predator worthy of their respect. There is no predator-prey relationship between Mike and the sharks. Instead there is one of mutual trust and equal footing.
White sharks may be dominant in the ocean but they are also only one part of an intricate marine ecosystem, and their social behaviour is complex. Marine animals communicate with each other and with other species, exchanging information about food sources, threats and the like, even if unintentionally.
Great whites have often been witnessed behaving calmly in the company of other species, even dolphins.
They also interact closely with each other in a relaxed manner, though they also issue threats and warnings, and even superficially bite one another.
They are permanently reading the environment – not just obvious cues such as smells and sounds, but also the movements of other individuals around them.
“Anything that moves fast in the ocean is either chasing something or being chased by something,” says Mike. “The movements of other individuals tell a white shark what is going on around it. If you can fit into this system, you can be accepted as part of it, and everything around, including white sharks, will behave as normal.”
Humans normally stand out like sore thumbs, awkward and loud by a shark’s standards. Mike is tall, and wearing his long fins he is well over 2m in length. That’s already a fair-sized predator.
Scuba bubbles are too out of place in the serene underwater world for a white shark to take seriously, but freediving means that Mike can be quiet and slick.
He is confident in the company of the sharks, as if being with them were easy. He can make physical contact, taking a ride on a dorsal fin or meeting a shark face-on to scratch its snout. By doing so, he has created some of the most heart-stopping white shark photographs and footage ever produced.
These images have travelled the world and done more to change the minds of people than any research ever could. But the real mind-blower is not that Mike was able to ride a white shark’s dorsal fin or glide a hand along its flank as it passes – it’s that the shark lets him do it in the first place.
What’s in it for the shark to allow what it thinks is another predator to catch a ride on its dorsal fin? It definitely knows that Mike is there, because he creates drag, and the shark’s sensitive lateral-line system – developed specifically for the detection of water and animal movements – will tell it his exact position and movements at all times.
Can it be that a white shark interacts with Mike simply because it can, because it is curious, and are these sharks generally open to suggestions of such contact? The unanswered questions need far more probing.
Freediving is still the only way to learn more about white sharks’ social behaviour; but it is dangerous and extreme, and Mike does not recommend that anyone try it, nor would he take a client free-diving.
In any case, Marine and Coastal Management, the South African marine authority, has banned freediving for the time being, following pressure from concerned parties about the risks involved. Mike’s work has had to stop, and he has taken every chance to show MCM that the practice, while dangerous, is of huge value to shark-behaviour studies. MCM has acknowledged this, and it is hoped that Mike will be given a permit to freedive with the sharks once again.
Freediving can help develop guidelines to be used by all divers who may encounter a white shark.
Probably the most immediate message to come from the practice is this: on encountering a white shark in the ocean, stand your ground.
White sharks hunt fast-moving Cape fur seals and tuna. Behave like one, and you are one. Flee and you are behaving just as a prey would, and will incite a chase.
Mike has also learned that it is possible to deflect an oncoming white shark with his hand, and sometimes even without contact at all. This too can be taught to divers, and will go towards better and safer interactions between divers and white sharks.
Ultimately, it would be good for great white sharks to receive the same adoration as other predators such as lions and leopards.
They were recently placed on CITES Appendix II, which will control trade in their parts, but this doesn’t mean that they won’t fall prey to poachers. Sickeningly, white shark jaws, and teeth in particular, are still incredibly highly valued.
Mike asks that no one buy any trinkets that came from a white shark, or any other species of shark, no matter where the vendor claims to have acquired them. One tooth sold means that a fisherman will simply catch another shark to replace it.
Besides, while the CITES listing is wonderful, it does little to change public perception of this species. Mike hopes that his pictures will encourage people and divers to learn more and to want to protect them. There is a definite rise in the number of shark enthusiasts – especially in the UK!
What else can be done to protect sharks? “Dive with them!” says Mike. “If divers start asking to dive with sharks everywhere they go, we will see an international movement towards protection of sharks, because their monetary value will be so high – and unfortunately that’s what matters.
“This is especially true in developing countries where livings are scratched by whatever means and a tourist trade is invaluable. That said – do it safely! One bite or accident alone can undo years of positive work.”
With his work halted, it’s time to share the knowledge Mike has gained so far. He has put as much of his freediving interactions into words, footage and stills as possible.