How a N.Y. photographer snagged a ‘once in a lifetime’ shot of a great white shark off Cape Cod

"My heart was pounding through my chest."

A great white shark as captured by Mike Lemery off the shore of Head of the Meadow Beach, Sept. 3, 2019. —Mike Lemery

Mike Lemery heard the yelling and knew instantaneously what it was all about.

He hustled across Head of the Meadow Beach, back down the way he’d walked just moments before, and got his camera.

The 34-year-old Schenectady, New York, resident had captured impressive sights before. A video producer and editor who spends his down time grabbing shots of wildlife, Lemery is a professional.

But that day, Sept. 3, he would capture a moment that had yet to unfurl before his lens: a breaching great white shark in the waters off Cape Cod.

“It happened so fast,” Lemery recalled in a recent interview with Boston.com. “I was just hoping that I got it … My heart was pounding through my chest.”

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Lemery, who wrote about the photograph on his website, snagged the “one in (a) million opportunity” during his first-ever visit to the Cape as part of a birthday celebration for his fiancée, Chrissy Reinemann, he said.

Reading up on the local beaches, he was drawn to the North Truro site for its seal population that would likely make for some strong pictures.

The possibility of a shark sighting crossed his mind, but Lemery had his doubts.

“I was excited to bring my camera down there, although I never thought I would see one,” he said.

Regardless, Lemery was in the right place. Great white sharks are most abundant on the outer Cape, where they prey on gray and harbor seals.

And while the sharks begin descending upon Massachusetts in June, peak months for shark activity are typically in August, September, and October.

On Labor Day, Lemery and Reinemann hit the beach and saw “hundreds” of seals as the tide was coming in, Lemery said. Many of them lounged on the sandbar.

Some were there the next day, too, when the couple returned. Lemery fished for a bit. A couple of seals swam past him, but nothing was out of the ordinary, he said.

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The crowds at the beach, with the start of the off-season made official that day, were sparse.

And so Lemery set out for a walk. It wasn’t before long he heard the screams.

“I just heard this woman screaming, ‘Get out of the water! Get out of the water!,’ like screaming it, terrified screams,” he said. “So instantly you know cause as soon as you walk onto the beach there’s shark signs everywhere. The first thing you see (at the beach) is a picture of a great white … You’re thinking about it all the time.”

Lemery saw another woman in the water, not too far out. Other beachgoers started to look, too, and Lemery headed for his camera.

By the time he returned with Reinemann, the swimmer was safely ashore. Lemery learned that the alert came after another bystander saw a “whole shark jump right out of the water,” one described between 10 and 12 feet long, he recalled.

“Me and my fiancée just start looking out to the water … and Chrissy says, ‘I think I see a fin,’” Lemery said. “So I’m looking and … she was able to guide me to it and I was able to find it, every couple of seconds to see this fin coming out of the water.”

Lemery is unsure whether the creature was a shark, but nonetheless got a few ominous photos of the sight.

With the fin lost on the horizon, the couple’s attention shifted to an approaching sailboat, he said.

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And Reinemann saw something again, something lurking near the ship.

“As soon as I look over to the boat with my camera, as soon as I’m starting to pull focus on the boat, the shark comes right out of the water, right in front of my camera basically,” Lemery said.

He added, “It happened so fast I didn’t really have a chance to think about it or see … or frame it up or even get the focus all the way up. It just happened so fast. I saw it and I framed it up as quick as I could and rapid-fired my camera.”

He knew right away what he captured.

While he’s a seasoned photographer, Lemery said getting the shot was “mostly luck.”

But, his passion has taught him this: There is always more going on than one knows, he said.

“If you’re not looking and actually paying attention and looking 100 percent, you’ll probably never notice half the stuff that’s going on,” he said.

In a Facebook post Thursday, the Atlantic White Shark Conservancy shared Lemery’s picture along with a similar snapshot of the last moments of a breach — a shark tail protruding above the water — taken last October by Elliott Hillback.

“Most people think of South Africa when they think of breaching white sharks, but they can happen off Cape Cod too!,” the post says.

Lemery knows his chances of making a second trip to the Cape some day are pretty good.

As for another photo like that one? Not so much.

“That is for sure once in a lifetime,” he said. “I could go there everyday for the rest of my life and I don’t think I’ll ever be able to see that again, let alone get a photo of it.”