A shark photographer’s golden rule for hanging out with great whites

You’ve seen sharks depicted in photos charging forward, two glinting rows of daggers exposed by a snarl, ready to sink into your flesh. But you probably haven’t seen a fully grown shark, mouth agape and draped in total relaxation over a diver’s arm.

This phenomenon is called tonic immobility. Stroking the shark’s nose sends the animal into a catatonic state, enabling researchers to tag, perform minor surgeries, and remove hooks.

Some believe it works because the nose is loaded with electroreceptors and overloads their senses. Why sharks evolved the behavior to begin with, though, is a mystery.

“To watch a man pick up a 12- to 13-foot black tip shark and hold it in his hands like a baby…it’s really hard to find an analogy to compare with that,” photographer Michael Muller said. He has circled the globe, documenting the lives of sharks. His new book, “Sharks: Face-to-Face with the Ocean’s Endangered Predator,” (Taschen, March 2016) is a culmination of that work.

After a decade of photographing sharks, he has been up close and personal, cage-free, with sharks from great whites to hammerheads. “The golden rule is to remain humble and know that you’re dealing with wild animals,” he said.

Great white, False Bay, August 2013. (Michael Muller/Taschen/Distribution by CPi Syndication)

Great white, Guadalupe Island, August 2012. Shark behaviorist Brocq Maxey interacts with this feisty 15-foot male shark, using only his hands and calm demeanor, always moving back and forth and letting the shark know that he is the boss. (Michael Muller/Taschen/Distribution by CPi Syndication)

Great white, Guadalupe Island, October 2009. This photo was made using a custom-built 1200-watt waterproof strobe lighting system. (Michael Muller/Taschen/Distribution by CPi Syndication)

Blue sharks, 40 miles south of Cape Town, January 2014. (Michael Muller/Taschen/Distribution by CPi Syndication)

Great white, Guadalupe Island, October 2009. (Michael Muller/Taschen/Distribution by CPi Syndication)

Walter Bernardis performs “tonic” on a blacktip at Aliwal Shoal, KwaZulu-Natal, South Africa, September 2014. “For most of us grabbing an 11-foot blacktip by its nose only gets you bit,” Muller wrote. (Michael Muller/Taschen/Distribution by CPi Syndication)
Muller is best known as a chronic celebrity portraitist and photographer of blockbuster movie posters for the likes of the “Iron Man” and “X-Men” franchises. But even as he was doing this work, the roots of his shark project were taking hold.

“I’d go do ‘Captain America’ in London, and at night time I’d go put shark posters up,” Muller said. Known underground as “White Mike,” he slapped up wheat paste posters of photos wherever he went around the globe. “I wanted people to look up in their cars and see a smiling shark,” he said. (In an odd twist, actress Jessica Alba was caught helping to post these in downtown Oklahoma City — one on top of a United Way billboard.)

This emotional appeal to recognize the rich lives and varied personalities of shark species is the crux of his book.

Misinformation and an amplified fear of shark attacks permeates the popular culture, frustrating experts. Every year as “Shark Week” ramps up, University of Miami doctoral candidate David Shiffman begins his own ritual: Refuting falsehoods in the programs.

The pseudoscientific documentary on Megalodon, a 50-foot-long shark, faked evidence that it could exist today, peeving Shiffman to no end. He also likes to counter with statistical tweets like, “More people are killed by cows, toasters and flower pots than by #sharks.”

Muller also rails against the miseducation of the public with his photographs. Throughout his shoots, Muller surrounded himself with seasoned professionals who were all watching out for each other and hyperaware of their surroundings. Although he rarely uses a cage anymore, he doesn’t hesitate to employ one on complicated shoots.

Muller brings the same Hollywood treatment that he uses on Marvel shoots to his underwater subjects. His most elaborate setups have included a solar system of cameras, strobes with underwater housings, cables, 14-15 assistants and a documentary film crew.

One of Muller’s favorite memories from the project was finally getting to bring his 11-year-old daughter along to dive with great whites. He said he promised her that when she was old enough and got certified, he would take her to sea.

In fact, on the first trip he made to photograph sharks in the Galapagos Islands, he had worried that the creatures would disappear before his daughter grew up. But in the moment, as they dove together, he looked over and saw the next generation — experiencing it for herself.

Lemon shark, Cat Island, Bahamas, March 2014. Muller’s goal here was to photograph oceanic white tips. “We had to go out in the middle of the ocean and start chumming hoping we would get lucky. Not only did we see half a dozen white tips but also got to work with bulls and a solo lemon shark,” he said. (Michael Muller/Taschen/Distribution by CPi Syndication)

Whale shark, Gal‡pagos Islands, October 2008. “The Gal‡pagos expedition was one of the toughest and most demanding I’ve ever done. We were doing four, sometimes five, dives a day, then traveling through the night in the roughest seas,” he said. (Michael Muller/Taschen/Distribution by CPi Syndication)

Great hammerhead, Bimini Island, February 2015. (Michael Muller/Taschen/Distribution by CPi Syndication)

Great whites, Guadalupe Island, October 2009. Two sharks go nose-to-nose in a rarely seen behavior to determine who is the bigger, more dominant shark that gets first dibs at the bait. This trip was also the maiden voyage of a self-propelled cage designed by Lawrence Groth, so that Muller was able to stay with the sharks as they swam. “I was getting closer and closer to being cage-free,” he said. (Michael Muller/Taschen/Distribution by CPi Syndication)

Great white, False Bay, August 2013. A rare capture of a night breach. (Michael Muller/Taschen/Distribution by CPi Syndication)

Whale shark, Isla Mujeres, April 2014. (Michael Muller/Taschen/Distribution by CPi Syndication)

Great white, Guadalupe Island, October 2009. (Michael Muller/Taschen/Distribution by CPi Syndication)

By May-Ying Lam

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