Dance of the snap­pers

Wolf­gangLe­an­der swim­swithsharks— to pho­to­graph them. He’s not crazy, he tells Si­monRound

The Jewish Chronicle - - Features -

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


Where the wild things are… Wolf­gang Le­an­der stroking tiger sharks off the coast of South Africa ( top and bot­tom right), shot by his son, Felix.

A ham­mer­head shark, pho­tographed by Le­an­der

Bot­tom left:

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