Dance of the snappers

Wolfgang Leander swims with sharks — to photograph them. He’s not crazy, he tells us

In recent years, thousands of people have taken the opportunity to swim with dolphins. Far fewer have been overtaken by the urge to swim with sharks. Wolfgang Leander is one of those who has.

Sixty-seven-year-old Leander, the son of a German-Jewish refugee who was born and raised in South America, developed a passion for diving despite spending much of his childhood in the landlocked country of Bolivia. On Mediterranean holidays he snorkelled and indulged in spear-fishing. Then, 40 years ago on a Caribbean holiday, he encountered sharks for the first time. He was hooked and has followed his passion ever since.

Leander is adamant that, contrary to popular belief, sharks are not particularly dangerous to humans. “Last year only one person is known to have been killed by a shark worldwide. I just read that in the same period, 150 people were killed worldwide by falling coconuts. Coconuts are potentially dangerous. They can kill you.”

He has no such fears about the sharks whom he photographs and swims alongside. “You can get really close to tiger sharks because they move very slowly. They are not inhibited about getting close to divers because they are curious. When I can see they are really relaxed, I hug them gently and they slide through my hands. Sometimes I get the idea they enjoy it.”

Leander acknowledges that sharks can and do bite, but he feels that we fundamentally misunderstand them. “Over time I have read a lot of research and seen lots of observations made by photographers. Everyone had the common experience that sharks were not dangerous and don’t attack people.

“You have to respect them first of all because we are in their realm and they are formidable predators. However, human flesh is not in their diet. They don’t go mad if they see human blood, just if they see fish blood. “When sharks bite, it is to find out whether something is edible. It is a test bite. The trouble with these test bites is that the wounds can be very deep. On the other hand, I’ve seen a tiger shark biting a person so gently that you could not even see the teethmarks on the wet suit. Tiger sharks have a bad reputation, but they are the gentlest sharks you will come across.”

Having said all that, Leander was bitten a few years ago. But it was not, he claims, the fault of the shark. “I provoked it. I had speared a fish and I wanted to attract the attention of a large shark I had seen on the bottom. But another shark appeared. I could see it was excited by the fish. It made three passes, and three times I pulled the fish away. The fourth time, the shark reacted exactly the way a dog would react if you denied it a bone. He bit me once then left me alone. I lost a lot of blood and needed stitches. It was 100 per cent my fault.”

Despite his age and the fact that he has had three serious health scares involving cancer and heart problems in the last 20 years, Leander feels he can outdive men many years younger than himself. He has always dived without scuba equipment and can keep his breath for between one and four minutes underwater. “I tried scuba-diving two or three times, but I didn’t like it because it felt unnatural. Free-diving is the best way to feel like a marine mammal. You can interact with any fish better because you are more mobile and there are no bubbles.”

Part of the thrill of diving for him is in the photography, which has become a real passion in the past 10 years. He uses a still camera, prefers film to digital and has a passion for monochrome. “I like black and white because it has a much more graphic impact.”

The other reason he dives and takes photographs is to publicise the plight of the shark. “A hundred million sharks are killed every year,” he says.

“There are species which have declined by 80 per cent in the last 20 years. The main problem is shark’s fin soup. Because of the economic boom in China, there are many more people who can afford to buy this very expensive soup. It is a status symbol. So there is a huge demand for sharks’ fins. The drop in the numbers of sharks creates a huge imbalance in the ecosystem.”

To see more of Wolfgang Leander’s shark photographs, visit www.oceanicdreams.com

    Last updated: 4:38pm, September 23 2009