Towson underwater photographer takes up plight of sharks

Underwater photographer Bill Band remembers the first time he felt the enormity of the danger while taking pictures of sharks.

It was in 2015, a tiger shark about 12 feet long in the waters off Jupiter, Fla. The tiger shark is one of two apex predator sharks, along with great whites, that can stealthily ambush a victim before even being noticed.

Band said he wasn’t frightened but, rather, exhilarated.

“I had never been that close to a tiger shark or to an animal of that size,” the 69-year-old Towson resident said.

Band said he guided the shark away with the lens of his camera. “But she stayed with us,” he said. “She was curious and had to inspect everyone.”

The retired ship pilot said that talking about the future of the sharks, what challenges they face and how important they are to the health of the oceans is something he has come to understand in his decades of photographing them.

To that end, Band will be showing selections from a large collection of shark images he has taken over the past four decades when he talks about his experiences and the plight of the predators on April 28 at 6:30 p.m. at Hunt’s Memorial United Methodist Church in Towson.

‘Vibrant underwater world’

Capturing images of fish — including dangerous sharks — came naturally to Band. As a boy growing up in the Philippines, his dad, who was with the State Department, would frequently take him skin diving.

“I fell in love with the vibrant underwater world and was drawn to its beauty,” Band said.

In 1970, after a long certification process, Band started scuba diving and then began taking photographs underwater in the late 1970s.

d his photography hobby by bringing his camera along with him In the early 1980s, he began bringing his camera along while working as a ship pilot guiding large vessels into the Port of Baltimore. He would be boated out to the mouth of the Chesapeake Bay near Virginia Beach and board the ships. Then from the bridge of the ship he would help guide the ship safely up the Chesapeake.

Being aboard a ship 100 feet off the water would allow him to take photos almost as if he were in a low-flying airplane.

“I shot fabulous sunrises and sunsets, and watermen if I could get close enough,” Band said. “I had a niche in photography most people didn’t have.”

Band’s two hobbies dovetailed when he started bringing a camera along on his dives.

“Initially, I was afraid of seeing a shark, and then I finally encountered one. It was disinterested in me and I realized that these animals weren't the monsters we make them out to be,” he said. “I began encountering them more frequently as I dove around the world. They never bothered me. For many divers a shark encounter is the highlight of the dive.

“Photographing these beautiful animals adds an artistic dimension to these encounters. It’s an experience that most people will never have.”

The more dives he made, the more Band enjoyed the undersea world and the creatures in it. His desire to do all he can to protect and preserve the species has been a positive by-product of his hobby.

“Something like 100 million sharks are slaughtered every year,” Band said, a statistic supported by a 2013 report in the journal Marine Policy. “That means 10,000 sharks are being killed every hour.”

500 types of sharks

Alan Henningsen, a shark and ray expert at the National Aquarium at Baltimore’s Inner Harbor, said sharks are killed for a number of reasons, such as for their meat, jaws, and mostly fins.

“It is the high demand and value for shark fins in some Asian cultures and markets that has led to the practice of finning, or cutting off the fins and discarding the body,” he added. “This is a very wasteful practice.”

Band said it is this practice of harvesting sharks for their fins for shark fin soup that is the greatest danger to shark populations. They are being killed faster than they can replace themselves, he said. Often the fins are cut off and the body of the shark is returned to the water. There are no global regulations on shark harvesting.

“Most sharks have to keep swimming to breathe,” Band said. “Without their fins, the sharks suffocate to death.”

Also, because sharks are at or near the top of their food chain, they are key components to the overall health of the oceans, Band said.

As some of the top predators in oceans, they eat mid-level predators that eat smaller fish and on down to the algae being consumed. If the algae-eating fish are gone, that will affect our oxygen, Band said.

Henningsen said that the more he has learned about captive sharks, the more respect he has for them.

“They can get excited when feeding, but any other time, they do not want to be around you,” Henningsen said. “In the wild, most sharks will also steer clear of humans.”

Henningsen points out that it is difficult to generalize about sharks because there are more than 500 types, and they vary greatly,

Sand tiger sharks, for instance, “are not aggressive but look ferocious, simply because their teeth protrude from their mouths,” he said.

As his experience as a shark photographer has expanded, so has Band’s desire to raise public awareness that sharks are in danger of extinction.

“These animals are 400 million years old; they preceded dinosaurs,” Band said.

“My diving took me closer to sharks and I discovered they aren’t the monsters like they are painted by Hollywood. I have always been concerned about the ‘Jaws’ mentality that is out there. Millions are being killed just because they are sharks. We have to respect them, not kill them.”

Band said he is on the “front end” of his shark activism. He has made contact with the American Shark Conservancy, a group involved in enlightening the public about the plight of sharks.

Band now spends winters in southeast Florida working with a group of underwater shark photographers.

“Standing on a dive boat ready to go, your mind is clear of everything except diving and the sharks,” he said. “My senses are very alert; I am focused. I am not thinking about what I am going to have for dinner that night.”

The only time he has ever made a dive in a cage was last October among great white sharks off the west coast of Mexico.

“You just have to be careful around them,” Band said, “but if you keep eye contact with them, they will move cautiously around you.”

Band said that he has made 1,250 dives; 300 have taken place in the last 3½ years since he retired.

He has also obtained advanced open water and nitrox certification, which have enabled him to attain neutral buoyancy — the ability to stay at a certain depth and not float above or sink below that level — at any depth.

“Diving skills are paramount,” Band said, “and they only come with experience. They teach you natural buoyancy until it become second nature. Experience is the name of the game in diving.”

Band said he does not consider himself a high-risk taker but rather a careful person who has surrounded himself with experience people to lessen the danger.

But he does consider himself fortunate.

“I know I am doing something most people would never think of doing,” he said.

Elizabeth Eck of the Baltimore Sun Media Group contributed to this article.

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