Hooked on Conservation

Originally posted on December 8, 2012
The first underwater photos of a live Greenland shark were taken in the Canadian Arctic by Nick Caloyianis during a scientific expedition in 1995. As Arctic travel has become more popular and accessible, several photographers have followed in his footsteps seeking a rare encounter with one of the world’s most elusive sharks. Their photos are breathtaking, but they all too often come at a deadly price… for the shark.

When one Googles for Greenland shark images from the Arctic, most of the photos show the world’s most northerly shark seemingly hovering just under the ice cover where the depths below reach far beyond the range of scuba divers. The images are breathtaking but they are mostly taken at the expense of the shark’s health.

The shark in the opening scene of the video “Meet the Greenland Shark,” which was produced by an organisation whose stated goal is to [protect our seas], is obviously dead or dying.

Telemetry studies over the last decade – including our own – have demonstrated that the diel vertical movements of the Greenland shark rarely take them all the way to the surface and that their shallowest transits mostly occur at night under the cover of darkness. The vast majority of sharks photographed under the ice are caught on hook and line before being hauled to the surface to serve as models for paying travelers and photographers. The sharks are typically snagged at depths of hundreds of metres in total darkness and then subjected to rapid decompression and intense light levels.

John Batt inspecting the under-ice bait station in the Saguenay Fjord during Operation Skalugsuak I, in 2001. Photo © Jeffrey Gallant | GEERG
Shark observation cage stuck in the ice during Operation Skalugsuak II, in 2002. Photo © Jeffrey Gallant | GEERG

Having ourselves made hundreds of observations of the Greenland shark swimming freely without the use of bait or fishing apparatus, we are justly qualified to declare that the appearance and behaviour of most sharks in photos and video sequences from the Arctic are anything but natural. Many of the sharks, some swimming disoriented or completely vertical with jaws agape, are clearly in distress. A lot of photos show the ice pack at an angle or even under the shark, obvious clues that the images were rotated to create the illusion that the shark is swimming horizontally. In some images the shark is upside down with its ocular parasite pointing away from the ice, which is a conspicuous sign that the shark has no forward movement and that it is either dead or will die long before it is Photoshopped and posted to Facebook.

Wildlife photography, no matter how well-intentioned, should never serve as a pretext to cause harm to any animal, including the Greenland shark.

Other photos show visible signs that the shark is or was tethered to the surface with a rope. The caudal peduncle – narrow area at the base of the tail – either does not appear in the image, or it shows signs of abrasion where the noose damaged the skin. Injury notwithstanding, these are the lucky ones since some sharks don’t even make it to the surface in one piece. As they struggle on the seafloor to break loose from the hook stuck in their gullet, they alert other sharks to their vulnerability and they are promptly cannibalized. Others die from the trauma caused by rapid ascent from hundreds of metres followed by human manipulation, frozen tissues and slow asphyxiation as their internal organs are crushed under the shark’s own weight on the ice surface. In the South Pacific, this practice is akin to capturing chambered nautilus at depths surpassing 300 m (1,000 ft) and then subjecting them to the same rapid decompression to bring them within reach of waiting underwater photographers. Likewise, dragging a Greenland shark to the surface for the sole purpose of taking photos is no more ethically acceptable than injecting bleach into a nocturnal octopus’ den to force it out into daylight where it is exposed to blinding strobes and hungry pinnipeds. To do so for the sake of a potential cover shot or even worse, to promote conservation and environmental awareness, is highly detrimental to the animal that the well-meaning or occasionally self-serving photographer claims to protect.

The ever-controversial practice of wildlife photo staging is tolerated with the Greenland shark because it is just that, a shark. On the other hand, a tremendous uproar would instantly resonate throughout the blogosphere if the same treatment were meted out to far less threatening animals such as dolphins or seals.

I wonder how many photographers actually consider the plight of the Greenland shark as they watch it through their viewfinders, writhing in pain and gasping for oxygen after lying exposed on the ice while divers suited up and prepped their cameras. I’d like to see the actual circumstances of these staged photo sessions detailed in the captions of all such images. People normally bewildered by the photographer’s prowess and photographic skills would likely voice concern for the shark, not the diver, if they were aware of the truth behind the image.

Wildlife photography, no matter how well-intentioned, should never serve as a pretext to cause harm to any animal, including the Greenland shark.

UPDATEA 2016 study¹ that assessed blood lactate and glucose in 46 captured Greenland sharks found a correlation between depth and increased concentrations of stress metabolites. These capture-related stressors “alter the internal homeostasis of fish and can potentially result in both lethal and sub-lethal physiological and behavioral impairments post-release.”


¹ Barkley, A.N., S.J. Cooke, A.T. Fisk, K. Hedges and N.E. Hussey. 2016. Capture-induced stress in deep-water Arctic fish. Polar Biology. DOI: 10.1007/s00300-016-1928-8.

Jeffrey Gallant, M.Sc., is the Scientific Director of the St. Lawrence Shark Observatory (ORS) and of the Greenland Shark and Elasmobranch Education and Research Group (GEERG). He is also the author of the Diving Almanac and a contributing editor of DIVER Magazine. Jeffrey dove with his first shark, a spiny dogfish, off Halifax (Nova Scotia) in 1991.