Behind The Shot: Swimming With Sharks

The Brothers Islands, Red Sea, Egypt

Canon EOS 5D Mark III, Canon EF 24-70mm ƒ/2.8L, Seacam Silver underwater housing, Inon Z-240 strobes, 24mm, 1⁄200 sec., ƒ/8, ISO 320

Born in Finland, I now live in Taipei, Taiwan, and even though diving is very nice here, there are no longer sharks around, as they have been fished out for shark fin soup. Environmental protection of seas isn’t sufficient yet, but it’s good to see that the popularity of shark soup is going down due to active campaigning in China, Hong Kong and Taiwan. I hope that the slowing market will give change, to see sharks here in the future, but in the meantime, I have to travel elsewhere to photograph them.

Last November, I took a one-week live-aboard trip to the Red Sea in Egypt. We started from Marsa Alam and headed first to the Brothers Islands, where this photo was taken. Oceanic whitetip sharks were one of the main subjects we were hoping to see, so it was planned to stay two days there diving with them. That time of year, they’re often close to the reefs on these islands, which are actually just rocks over the surface in the middle of the open ocean.

Jacques Cousteau described the oceanic whitetip as “the most dangerous of all sharks.” There are no records of them attacking divers, but they’re very curious, mainly checking to see if there’s something they could eat.

The routine was the same for every dive. We dove directly from the boat and headed for the reef. The sharks would hear that something was in the water and after awhile they would come check us out. Then we would wait for them in the very deep, open blue water fairly close to the ship, but staying at a depth of just five meters. Every dive we saw them, sometimes farther away, but often they would make a pass just one meter from us. It felt very calm, and I just loved being out there with those amazing animals in their natural environment. They moved very gracefully, but it seemed they have learned to be a bit wary of humans.

Taking good photos underwater is very difficult. Of course, you need an underwater housing for your camera—in my case, it’s just a normal full-frame DSLR. Even in relatively shallow water, you need to bring light with you (dual underwater strobes) in order to show the real colors. The problem is that strobes light all the small particles in water, so the position and power of the strobes need to be carefully adjusted.

I like that when non-divers see the photos they think about how they could protect the waters. Usually, what you don’t see, you don’t care about. The last few decades have been very bad for the seas, and it will impact all of us more than we know. Showing animals like sharks in their own environment hopefully will make some people think about how they can help to protect these beautiful animals.

To see more of Tommi Kokkola‘s photography, visit his website, Follow him on Facebook at, on Instagram at and on 500px at