(Video by Keith Ellenbogen)
Photographing sharks and other marine wildlife is nothing new for Keith Ellenbogen.
But last week the underwater conservation photographer experienced an “exceptionally close encounter” with a huge great white shark off the coast of Massachusetts that he’s not likely to forget.
And he has a 360-degree video to prove it.
Ellenbogen, 47, went out to the Stellwagen Bank National Marine Sanctuary on Friday, which sits about 20 nautical miles off the coast of Boston and about six from Provincetown. Through a three-year grant, the visiting artist at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology Sea Grant program and assistant professor of photography at SUNY/FIT is working with NOAA Stellwagen Bank National Marine Sanctuary to showcase underwater wildlife within the sanctuary, such as humpback whales, basking sharks, great whites, and mola mola.
“There’s an array of really diverse and extraordinary sea life that’s there,” he told Boston.com. “So this project is to create a visual awareness from an underwater perspective about Stellwagen Bank Sanctuary.”
That day, Ellenbogen went out on one of NOAA’s sanctuary boats — a 50-foot vessel from which an inflatable skiff called a RIB can be deployed.
It was bright and sunny, and the sea was flat. The goal that day, he said, was to photograph some of the sanctuary’s iconic animals.
“We noticed a fin at the surface moving extraordinarily slowly,” Ellenbogen said.
The movement was so slow that the photographer and the NOAA staff he was with ruled out the possibility it was a great white.
“[We] were thinking, ‘What other animals could this be?’” he said.
When the animal in the water began to move in a giant circle, Ellenbogen and his colleagues thought the behavior appeared similar to what basking sharks — filter feeders that swim along the surface of the water, mouths open to catch plankton — will do.
They positioned the RIB about 100 feet up-current from what they believed was the basking shark, and Ellenbogen slipped quietly into the water.
He began snorkeling toward the animal, a 360-degree camera in hand.
“I would alternate between looking in the water and looking up at the surface to follow the fin,” he said.
There are some parts of the world where you can see 100 feet away under water, but not in New England. Ellenbogen said the “nutrient-rich” water dampens visibility to about 20 or 25 feet.
That’s the distance when the 47-year-old Newton native registered what he was filming — and what was swimming toward him.
“When it broke at about 25 feet, I instantly realized that this was not a large basking shark, but rather an enormous great white shark,” he said. “And at that very moment we were on a sort of trajectory — swimming right towards one another.”
Ellenbogen said he “braced” himself and focused on getting the image of the animal on his camera.
“Maintaining my composure, keeping my heartbeat slow, not moving and sort of really focused with all the training I’ve had over the many years of my career as an underwater conservation photographer to capture this image,” Ellenbogen said.
It passed within about a foot of him.
“I could have put my hand out and touched it I was so close,” he said.
It was huge — stretching about 16 feet long and 6 feet wide, with scars criss-crossing its skin.
“A couple of things went through my mind,” Ellenbogen said. “I realized this was a large, great white shark. The second thing that went through my mind instantly was a very dramatic eye contact with the shark. It unmistakably looked at me and connected and sort of scanned my body. And I have to say, I did pretty much the same thing at the same time.”
The shark passed him by, continuing on in the direction it was going without changing its behavior.
As soon as it did, Ellenbogen raised his hand above the water to signal the RIB that had been trailing about 40 feet behind him.
“I passed them the camera really quickly and pulled myself out of the water instantly,” he said. “At that moment, I think it began to process, and I realized I’d had what would be an exceptionally close encounter with an enormous animal. And I was hopeful that I got the footage that I thought I did.”
Massachusetts shark researchers wrote on Twitter that they believe the animal captured in the video is a great white previously tagged and named “Large Marge.”
It’s not the first time Ellenbogen has been close to sharks — he’s been around great whites, bull sharks, makos, and others before.
“This is the closest I’ve ever been to a great white shark in open, free-swimming water in New England,” he said. “In other parts of the world people swim and have imagery of sharks, but, again, the visual reference point for everyone starts much farther [because of water visibility].”
The photographer said the close encounter with the ocean predator isn’t going to change the way he approaches his work.
In fact, he said he “happily” went back into the water on Friday to photograph other animals in the sanctuary.
“Stellwagen Bank National Sanctuary is a dynamic ecosystem and having great white sharks there, that are large apex predators, means it’s a healthy ecosystem with a lot of extraordinary wildlife,” Ellenbogen said of the experience. “And I think what it really shows to me is that the perception of white sharks being mindless killers is not at all true. They are large animals that feed as all animals do. But they’re not just mindlessly killing and biting everything that swims past them, but rather are large predators doing their own thing.“
The sharks, he said, are beautiful animals that should be admired and protected.
“They also need to be respected because they’re large animals that are the apex in their environment,” he said. “But that doesn’t mean that we shouldn’t admire them for what they are.”