Cage diving with great white sharks
Sketching great white sharks from a cage beneath the waves – now that’s a swell idea says Jonathan Truss.
As the boat bobbed up and down in the swell of the cold, dark sea, the realisation of what I was about to do struck home.
I wasn’t having second thoughts exactly, but I couldn’t help wondering: did I really need to get so close to one of the world’s most dangerous predators for the sake of my art?
A tuna head had been tossed into the water, and a seal-shaped float trailed temptingly behind the boat.
After just a few minutes, we saw the unmistakable sight of a great white shark fin slicing through the waves.
To me, the fish looked enormous – at least the width of our vessel. I was keen to get in the water, but the skipper cautioned me to wait.
Apparently, the sharks would be as wary as we were: whatever had killed the tuna might still be around, and they wouldn’t want to be next on the menu.
But, gradually, the great fish increased in number until four or five swam in lazy circles around the boat.
In the flesh
My ambition to cage-dive with great whites was ignited some 20 years ago.
Way back then when I was a budding artist, a seasoned pro gave me some invaluable advice: if you want to paint elephants, you’d better go and see them for yourself.
This may sound obvious, but there are many wildlife artists who simply paint from photographs.
In my opinion, there are several problems with this approach. If the photo was taken in a zoo, the coat colour and muscle tone of the animal will vary dramatically from those of individuals in the wild.
Even using a shot of your subject in its natural habitat can create difficulties for the artist. When taking photos, you tend to look at the image as a whole, and fail to notice how one part of the animal relates to another – how far the nose is from the eyes, for instance.
An artist really needs to sketch in the flesh.
I did once paint a great white shark from a photo, but the result merely confirmed that if I wanted to achieve the perfect portrait, I would have to see one for myself.
So I devised a way of using oil crayons to sketch underwater, which I tested in the bath at home. Each crayon had to be attached to a nylon string tied around my wrist to stop it floating away.
Now, at last, I was doing it for real.
My skipper gave me the green light, I clambered into the cage and it was lowered beneath the waves.
Immediately, I realised that the biggest problem was not going to be the sharks but the swell, which was tossing me around like a shirt in a tumble dryer.
Wedging my legs between the bars and pushing my air tank against the sides stabilised my body, and I was able to admire the huge white underside of the first shark to investigate the tuna head.
For the next hour, the sharks swam leisurely around my cage, while I sketched furiously, all the while fighting against the current.
It wasn’t long before I started to notice details I’d never seen in a photo – for example, I didn’t realise that great whites have small side fins towards the rear.
Back on the boat, I was delighted with what I’d achieved, even if the sketches were, understandably, a bit rough. If this was suffering for my art, I was more than happy to be a martyr!