Underwater Shark Photography with “Gatorboy” Chris Gillette
Florida resident Chris Gillette is perhaps best known for being one of the stars of Animal Planet’s Gator Boys series – or you may have seen him on Discovery Channel’s Trailblazers. He’s often found wresting alligators, or having his photo taken inside the jaws of something powerful enough to crush a water melon. Yeah, that guy.
What you may not know is that Gillette is also a professional wildlife photographer, which is how I met him, standing in his photography cubicle at The Blue Wild expo in Fort Lauderdale. I was drawn, like most, to the incredible photo of a great white shark on the wall behind him.
What you almost certainly don’t know about Chris Gillette is that he is also a scuba diver and free diver who has also taken his photography skills underwater, to grab some beautiful images of life beneath the waves. Perhaps not surprisingly, much of his work focuses on predators – meaning the largest sharks he can find.
I asked Chris about his lesser-known passion for what lies hidden in the deep.
How did you get into diving?
I’ve been snorkeling since I can remember. My father would take me out, clinging onto his back before I could swim on my own and would push me down to be able to see fish. As I got older, I became more skilled at snorkeling and free-diving, then pursued scuba in college. I’ve always loved the ocean and diving, it has always been a large part of my life, although I have taken it much more seriously over the last few years when I started underwater photography.
How do sharks differ from alligators when it comes to danger?
Sharks and gators are extremely different, but in many ways sharing space with them can be very similar. Whether I am working with gators, crocs, cobras, or sharks, it is always important to remain calm and controlled, have your actions be be very deliberate and non-threatening and to try and understand the world from the animal’s perspective and how you fit into it. “Calm and cool” are key.
Do feel more at risk with sharks?
When working with sharks you can almost feel the energy of the situation rising and falling, there are cues to pick up on that can alert you to how the sharks are feeling. Gators don’t really have that, they typically are perfectly still and when they do move actions can be very explosive and without warning. As far as one more dangerous than the other, it is all situational and depends on what species and what circumstance. Both can be interacted with safely if you know how and are in the right situation. Both are known to consume a person in the wrong situation, both require utmost respect and care. The way I look at it is “dead is dead,” there are not varying degrees of dead whether a gator or shark crushed your head!
Some folk might think you have a death wish. Are you an adrenalin junkie?
I photograph and interact with a lot of large predators, and I think to most people it would seem as if I’m some sort of adrenaline junky doing these things, but in reality, it’s usually an incredibly peaceful and awe-inspiring experience. These animals are truly misunderstood and spending time in the water with them is typically not a scary-horrific experience, but very surreal in how calm and beautiful the experience is. I hope my photos can convey that.
How does photographic diving compare with taking photos on land?
Underwater photography is the most challenging form of photography in my opinion. There are so many more factors and variables at play. UW photography is also always wide or macro, which means getting close to the subject; you can’t pull out your telephoto from the comfort of a blind to photograph a shark.
Do you have a preference for shooting on land – or do you have the water bug now?
I prefer the challenge and reward of capturing a good UW shot.
What are your thoughts on scuba vs. free-diving?
I do scuba – but prefer free-diving when I can. Some animals do not allow close approach on scuba.
What are your photographic goals for 2017 and beyond?
I want to travel as much as I can, I really want to get out to the south Pacific and explore, I have never been. I also want to try and photograph other crocodilian and reptile species underwater that have not been photographed before. A major life goal on another side of the spectrum would be to photograph leopard seals.
How can our readers get hold of your work?