Simon Pierce: Whale Shark, Isla Mujeres

The Image

Simon Pierce

Isla Mujeres, Cancun, Mexico

Time / Date:
2:52 PM, 7 August 2013

The Technical

Camera Body: Panasonic GX1
Lens: Panasonic 8mm f/3.5 Fisheye
Other: Nauticam NA-GX1 underwater housing, 4.33 inch dome port

Camera Settings:

Shutter Speed: 1/4000s
Aperture: f/5.6
ISO: 400
Focal Length: 8mm

The Story


I was in Mexico to lead a whale shark research expedition. This area, north of Isla Mujeres, hosts the largest known aggregation of whale sharks each summer. Whale sharks are true sharks, and gigantic, but they’re completely harmless: they have tiny teeth, and feed solely on plankton. The whale sharks swim to Mexico to feed on tuna spawn, which are basically little globules of fat. They’re effectively swimming around sucking down lard. Good times, I guess. My scientific work involves photo-identifying each individual shark from their unique spots, so my camera is a vital research tool. Off Isla Mujeres though, there are so many sharks present that I’ll allow myself a bit of fun from time to time…

The Scene: 

I had attempted a couple of silhouette shots over the preceding days, but I had been stymied by the brightness of the sunball – I kept on burning out the highlights, as the dynamic range of the micro 4/3 sensor is less forgiving than a typical DSLR. As you can probably imagine, positioning yourself perfectly underneath a fast-moving fish is not always simple either. In this particular case, the swimmers alongside the shark were positioned perfectly to block me from taking the ‘science’ photos I wanted. I noted that it was momentarily overcast, so – rather than getting frustrated – I decided to try for a silhouette instead. This was the shot I had visualised.


Housing a DSLR is expensive. In a housing they’re also rather bulky, which is not ideal for a frequent traveller, and the large size makes them tougher to swim with. When mirrorless cameras started emerging as a serious proposition, my interest was piqued. I settled on the Panasonic GX1 as it seemed to be a good mix of cost, size and capability for my purposes. A significant bonus was that the micro 4/3 system, which the GX1 is part of, has a high-quality fisheye option in the form of the Panasonic 8mm. Whale sharks are really (really) big, so the extreme wide angle fisheye perspective makes a lot of sense underwater. The less water between you and the subject, the greater the sharpness and colour of the image, and this lens will focus right on the dome port. The Nauticam housing I use also has excellent ergonomics, which I particularly appreciate when I’m shooting one-handed.

Making the Shot:

This image was all about seeing an opportunity, and getting the timing right. As I mentioned above, shooting into direct sun was pushing the dynamic range of this camera, so I was waiting for an overcast sky. Once I had that, I just had to nail the composition. In hindsight, the swimmers were a stroke of luck, as I think their presence both improves the balance of the picture and emphasises the size of the shark. In terms of settings, I tend to keep it simple with whale sharks. I usually shoot in aperture priority, with f/5.6 providing sufficient depth of field with the m4/3 sensor and fisheye lens. I then control ISO manually to maintain shutter speed of 1/250 or more, which is usually simple in well-lit conditions.

Editing & Processing:

I use Lightroom 5. I always shoot in RAW, as white balance is tricky to get exactly right in-camera with only natural light underwater. I adjusted the colour balance slightly to remove a slight magenta tint, increased the shade to emphasise the silhouette, and pushed the clarity right up to define the edges.

Looking Back:

This is one of my favourite images to date. The circular effect, created by the light refracting as it enters the water, is known as Snell’s window. To me, it looks like a globe. I often talk about whale shark tourism, and how I think it’s generally of benefit to the species, as the economic impact of swimmers traveling to see these sharks has been a strong driver for the improved protection of these globally imperilled fish. For me, this shot neatly illustrates a way for people and sharks to happily coexist.


Underwater, it’s usually best to get as close as you can. Then get a bit closer. That’s normally an excellent recipe for a good shot. While it may not quite apply here, another piece of advice I’ve heard for underwater photography is to “shoot up”. I got that right, at least.


The world is an amazing place. All my photography comes from a deep, intensely nerdy love of nature. In terms of inspirational nature photographers, two names that immediately come to mind are Dr Alex Mustard and Will Burrard-Lucas. They both seem to revel in pushing the boundaries of what can be achieved. Importantly, they also document their experiments publicly so the rest of us can attempt to emulate their techniques.


About the Photographer

Dr. Simon Pierce is a Principal Scientist at the Marine Megafauna Foundation, where he leads an international research program on whale sharks and other threatened marine species. He also hosts ‘public’ whale shark research expeditions to Mexico, Tanzania, the Philippines and the Galapagos Islands for people seeking the best possible experience (and photo opportunities) with these gentle giants.

Simon’s images have been published widely in outlets including the Washington Post, BBC Wildlife, New Scientist and Scientific American. He views photography as a useful accessory to his scientific work, allowing him to engage people with nature conservation on both an emotional and intellectual level.

Twitter: @SimonPierce
Facebook: /SimonJPierce
Instagram: @SimonJPierce
500px: /SimonPierce

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