About the island
As I’ve mentioned before, Layang Layang is a small coral atoll in the South China Sea, northwest off the coast of Malaysian Borneo. With 30 degree water, visibility in excess of 40m and a reef that drops 2000m into the blue depths, the diving is spectacular.
One of the key drawcards for Layang Layang is that as an oceanic atoll, it sees a lot of big pelagic fish stopping by. Dogtooth tuna and several kinds of barracuda were common sightings. Trevally would shoot through the reef at high speed, scattering schools of tiny purple reef fish as they hunted. For me, the real attraction was the chance to see schools of scalloped hammerhead sharks. With shark populations worldwide under huge threat, these opportunities may not be around in the next decade.
About the dive
The hammerheads hang out in the deeper blue waters, cruising a short distance from the reef. On the first dive of the morning, the group would follow our divemaster out away from the coral wall at about 30m, keeping our eyes peeled for distant shapes in the 40m visibility. The peak time for visitors to the island is March and April, when sighting the hammerheads is very common. By visiting in July our chances were greatly reduced, and on our third morning trip out into the blue I was convinced we weren’t going to see anything.
As a result, I was occupying myself by filming the bubbles and various antics of my dive buddies when our much more attentive divemaster began to bang his tank. The whole group turned and did a quick sprint further out and down, and as I got closer silvery shapes became apparent in the darkness below.
About the shot
Shooting with a 14mm lens on a full frame camera, I knew I would have to get close. I’d partially resigned myself to some shots of somewhat discernible but mostly blue sharks in the distance before the trip. On first sighting of the school, this was pretty much exactly what I got, and once it was mostly tails I started to breathe again and gently began to ascend.
The adrenaline then kicked back in as the school began to circle around for another look at these curious bubble blowing creatures who had descended into their world. I dropped below the group, and tracked one shark on the leading edge. He turned a loop, and began to head directly towards me… this snap was taken at the moment when I stopped wishing the sharks would come close enough for a good shot, and began wondering exactly how close this one was going to come.
I was snapping the shutter every 2 seconds or so as the strobes recharged, and I have a series of this relatively slow approach. I say relatively slow, because my finger was halfway down on the button when the hammerhead decided it was time to leave – the shot is a blur as he turned and bolted into the blue. Despite the slow cruising speed, hammerhead sharks can move like greased lightening.